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Georgia set to execute death row inmate Willie Pye, whose lawyers claim he has an intellectual disability – CNN

Willie James Pye, who is on death row awaiting execution at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, poses for a Georgia Department of Corrections photograph on an unspecified date.


As Georgia plans to carry out its first execution in more than four years on Wednesday, the condemned inmate’s attorneys argue he should be spared because of an intellectual disability and a troubled upbringing, evidence of which were never heard by his jury at trial.

Indeed, three of Willie Pye’s jurors are now opposed to his execution, citing factors in the inmate’s background that were not presented by what his clemency petition says was an overworked and ineffective public defender. The state parole board, however, was unconvinced: After meeting Tuesday and “thoroughly considering all of the facts and circumstances of the case,” it denied clemency, according to a news release.

Pye still has litigation pending that could potentially halt his execution, records show. It’s not uncommon for death row inmates to pursue efforts to avoid execution up to the last minute before they are put to death – some that reach the US Supreme Court.

If Pye’s execution by lethal injection proceeds as planned Wednesday evening, it would be Georgia’s first since January 2020, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center. Executions were halted there as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the American Bar Association has said.

Pye, 59, was convicted of malice murder, kidnapping with bodily injury, armed robbery, burglary and rape and sentenced to death for the 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough, with whom he had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship, according to court records.

Pye’s clemency petition argued instead for a life sentence, pointing in part to the ineffective assistance of his trial attorney, who died in 2000. At the time, that attorney “was responsible for all indigent defense services” for Spalding County, Georgia, through a contract for which he was paid a lump sum, the petition says.

With the help of just one other attorney and an investigator, Pye’s lawyer was responsible for hundreds of felony cases at the same time – in addition to his private practice, the petition says. When he represented Pye, the lawyer was also representing defendants in four other capital cases. As a result, the attorney “effectively abandoned his post.”

A Georgia Department of Corrections officer walks in 2011 at the entrance to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

If he had provided Pye adequate representation, jurors “would have learned that Mr. Pye is intellectually disabled and has an IQ of 68,” his petition says, well below the 100 average. “They also would have learned the challenges he faced from birth – profound poverty, neglect, constant violence and chaos in his family home – foreclosed the possibility of healthy development,” the petition says.

The Georgia Supreme Court in 1989 ruled executions of the intellectually disabled violate the state constitution – a ruling echoed years later by the US Supreme Court, which found in 2002 that such an execution would transgress Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Still, Georgia requires defendants who claim an intellectual disability to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt – the only state that sets its burden of proof at that “insurmountably high standard,” Pye’s petition states.

His conviction and sentence have been upheld on appeal in state and federal court, though in 2021 a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the sentence, finding his trial attorney’s work during the sentencing phase of Pye’s trial was deficient and prejudicial. That ruling, however, was overturned a year later, following a hearing before the entirety of the 11th Circuit.

Similarly, a state court previously reviewed Pye’s claim of intellectual disability but found in a 2012 ruling that Pye did not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt as required. On Wednesday, that court rejected a similar appeal by Pye, ruling finding the claim was successive – meaning it had already been decided, referring to the 2012 order.

Pye, with two accomplices, intended to rob a man with whom Yarbrough was living, an appeals court decision says. Pye was angry with Yarbrough because that man had signed the birth certificate of a child Pye claimed was his. Pye bought a .22 pistol before the three men went wearing ski masks to the man’s home, where Yarbrough was alone with the baby.

Pye kicked in the door and held Yarbrough at gunpoint, the court decision says. The men took a ring and necklace from Yarbrough, then abducted her and took her to a motel, where they raped her. They then took Yarbrough down a dirt road, where Pye ordered her out of the car, told her to lie face down and shot her three times, according to the court ruling. One of Pye’s accomplices later confessed and testified for the state, and DNA analysis of semen taken from the victim’s body matched Pye.

Pye’s jury recommended a death sentence, which was ultimately imposed by the court in addition to three life sentences plus 20 years, according to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.

Pye’s accomplices are both serving life sentences for their roles in Yarbrough’s murder, Georgia correctional records show.