Monday, April 15, 2024

Willie Pye Put to Death Despite Questionable Disability, Horrific Upbringing: Georgia

HomeU.S.Willie Pye Put to Death Despite Questionable Disability, Horrific Upbringing: Georgia

JACKSON, Ga. — The gears of Georgia’s death penalty machinery started turning again late Wednesday night, ending a four-year execution hiatus as the state lethally injected 59-year-old Willie James Pye for a 1993 murder. It came after the U.S. Supreme Court swatted away a litany of lastditch appeals citing reasons he should be spared the ultimate punishment.

Pye was strapped to a gurney inside the execution chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in rural Jackson at 11:03 p.m. As the deadly drugs coursed through his veins, he offered no final words to console his soul or plead his innocence one last time. The state announced he was dead within minutes.

It was a grisly culmination to a crime that took a sickening turn almost exactly 31 years ago on that fateful March night. Pye and two buddies decided to carry out a harebrained robbery scheme against a man their former friend Alicia Lynn Yarbrough was shacking up with at the time.

But when they kicked in the door of the man’s home wearing ski masks, only Yarbrough and her infant child were there. In a fever of misguided vengeance over him signing another man’s name on her baby’s birth certificate, Pye made a fatal choice – he bought a cheap .22 caliber pistol and took Yarbrough hostage at gunpoint.

What transpired over the next few hours was a nightmare of depravity. The three thugs ripped jewelry off Yarbrough’s body, tossed her in their car, and took her to a seedy motel room. There, she was gang-raped repeatedly by her captors in a vile act of dehumanization.

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Pye wasn’t done ensuring Yarbrough paid the ultimate price for her perceived disloyalty, however. He forced her into the backseat of the vehicle once more and drove to a desolate dirt road in the Georgia countryside. Ordering the 25-year-old mother out of the car, Pye made her lie facedown and then shot her three times point-blank in the back of the head, execution-style.

One of the accomplices later confessed and cut a deal to testify against the mastermind Pye. The killer’s DNA was also recovered from rape evidence gathered at the scene. A jury swiftly convicted him of malice murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, burglary, and rape – and recommended death for the brutal crime.

But in a last-ditch Hail Mary effort to keep breathing, Pye’s legal team lobbed a series of longshot appeals alleging he should be spared based on intellectual disability and because of a pandemic-related legal agreement.

They claimed he had an IQ of 68, meeting the criteria for mental deficiency that should constitutionally prevent execution under past Georgia and U.S. Supreme Court rulings. However, the Peach State is the sole holdout requiring proof of such disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” – an impossibly high legal bar.

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Pye’s lawyers also argued he was unfairly left out of a 2020 deal capital defense attorneys brokered with the state agreeing to pause executions until staffing and resource shortages were addressed after Covid-19 chaos. But the state said simply – Pye wasn’t a party to that agreement.

In a last-gasp move Wednesday night, the U.S. Supreme Court was Pye’s final Hail Mary to stay the execution. The justices declined without providing explanation, clearing the needle’s path into his vein a few hours later.

What may have saved Pye was if his original jury had heard the full traumatic details of his childhood that his appeals team says his inept public defense lawyer failed to adequately describe at trial.

The overworked and underpaid court-appointed attorney – who was juggling over 400 felony cases and four other capital trials at the same time as Pye’s – essentially “abandoned his post” in investigating mitigating circumstances of his client’s life story, the appeals stated.

Far from the cold-blooded killer portrayed by prosecutors, Pye was born into aished a narrative of generational poverty, neglect, and constant violence and chaos in his family home that “foreclosed any possibility of healthy development.”

The horrific details could have swayed at least one of the 12 jurors weighing whether to show mercy and spare Pye’s life, his clemency petition argued. At least three jurors have since come forward expressing regret at not knowing the full picture of his tortured and intellectually disabled upbringing before sentencing him to die.

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But the state parole board was unmoved after its own “thorough” review, denying Pye clemency and clearing his execution to proceed despite the pleas highlighting how the justice system had failed him from cradle to gurney.

Georgia had not executed any inmates over the past four years as the Covid-19 pandemic brought new death sentences and capital punishment to a screeching halt in many parts of the country. With Pye’s killing, the state has now executed 73 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

But while lethal injections were temporarily paused in Georgia, the machinery of death chugged ahead unabated in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama during that same period.

Last year, 18 inmates were executed nationwide, the fewest in nearly three decades as use of capital punishment dwindles with public support continuing its steady decades-long decline. Anti-death penalty activists see the waning executions as a positive sign the American experiment with state-sanctioned killing may be nearing its end.

But with Pye’s hasty slaying after an effective four-year moratorium in Georgia, the death penalty community hopes his will be the first of many more killings to come as the backlogged execution dockets begin being cleared.

Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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