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Georgia executes death row inmate Willie Pye for the 1993 murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough

The state of Georgia on Wednesday executed death row inmate Willie Pye, who was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1993 murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough.

The execution – Georgia’s first in more than four years – was carried out by lethal injection at 11:03 p.m. at a prison in Jackson, about 50 miles south of Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Corrections said in a news release. Pye did not make a final statement, it said.

Pye, 59, was put to death after the US Supreme Court denied his final appeals late Wednesday. In a clemency petition and various court filings, Pye and his attorneys had argued for his life to be spared, citing an intellectual disability, a troubled upbringing and ineffective assistance of counsel.

“The State of Georgia obtained Willie’s death sentence only after providing him a racist and incompetent defense attorney. And the State has insisted on standing by that death sentence in spite of his lifelong intellectual disability and the fact that he presents a danger to no one in prison,” his attorney, Nathan Potek, said after the execution.

“The people of Georgia deserve better,” he added, describing Pye as a loving son, brother and uncle who “will be dearly missed by his friends, family, and his legal team.”

Pye’s execution marked 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 was convicted in 1996 of malice murder, kidnapping with bodily injury, armed robbery, burglary and rape in the killing of Yarbrough, with whom he had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship, according to court records.

The execution was preceded by a flurry of last-minute appeals – not uncommon in capital cases – including two filed with the US Supreme Court that were ultimately denied. In one, Pye argued he should not be executed because of a pandemic-era agreement between the Georgia Attorney General’s Office and capital defense lawyers that effectively paused executions in the state until certain conditions were met.

Pye’s attorneys argued that by excluding him from the agreement, the state placed him in a “disfavored class of death row prisoners,” allegedly violating the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. The state urged the justices to deny Pye’s appeal, citing a state court’s determination that he was not party to the agreement.

The other appeal stemmed from Pye’s argument that he had an intellectual disability, which his attorneys argued should make his execution unconstitutional. Georgia, however, requires inmates to prove an intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt – a burden of proof Pye’s attorneys said was so high that it, too, should be unconstitutional.

The state again urged the Court to deny due, in part, to a state court’s previous rejection of similar claims. In declining to halt Pye’s execution, the Supreme Court did not explain its reasoning, as is often the case in emergency appeals; there were no noted dissents.

The murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough

Pye, with two accomplices, intended in 1993 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.

A Georgia Department of Corrections officer walks in 2011 at the entrance to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. - Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images
A Georgia Department of Corrections officer walks in 2011 at the entrance to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. - Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images

Inmate claimed trial attorney ‘abandoned his post’

Pye’s clemency petition argued for a commutation to a life sentence, pointing in part to the ineffective assistance of his trial attorney, who died in 2000.

Indeed, three of Pye’s jurors were opposed to his execution, citing factors in the inmate’s background that were not presented by what his clemency petition said 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.

At the time of Pye’s trial, his 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 said. When he represented Pye, the lawyer was also representing defendants in four other capital cases. As a result, the attorney “effectively abandoned his post.”

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 said, 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 said.

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 is the only state that sets its burden of proof at the “insurmountably high standard” of beyond a reasonable doubt, Pye’s petition stated.

His conviction and sentence were 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 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.

CNN’s John Fritze contributed to this report.

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