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Georgia carries out first execution in more than 4 years

A Georgia man convicted of killing his former girlfriend three decades ago has been put to death in the state's first execution in more than four years.

Authorities say 59-year-old Willie James Pye was pronounced dead at 11:03 p.m. Wednesday evening following an injection of the sedative pentobarbital. Pye was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 abduction, rape and shooting death of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough.

Lawyers for Pye had sought clemency, saying Pye was intellectually disabled and remorseful. The last execution in Georgia was conducted in January 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic gained force.

Death Penalty Georgia
This undated image provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows inmate Willie James Pye. Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

Pye's lawyers filed late appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court urging it to intervene, but the justices declined. The attorneys argued the state hadn't met the necessary conditions for resuming executions after the COVID-19 pandemic and reiterated arguments that Pye was intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution. State responses to the justices Wednesday night argued that the defense claims were without merit, having been settled previously by the courts.  

In their request for clemency with the Georgia Parole Board last week, Pye's lawyers called the 1996 trial "a shocking relic of the past" and said the local public defender system had severe shortcomings in the 1990s.

Those failures of the local justice system had the effect of "turning accused defendants into convicted felons with all the efficiency of Henry Ford's assembly line," Pye's defense lawyers wrote in their clemency application.

"Had defense counsel not abdicated his role, the jurors would have learned that Mr. Pye is intellectually disabled and has an IQ of 68," they said, citing the findings of the state's expert.

Defendants who are intellectually disabled are ineligible for execution. Experts said Pye meets the criteria, but that the burden of proof in Georgia was too high to reach, his lawyers argued.

"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," they wrote. "This is precisely the kind of evidence that supports a life sentence verdict."

But the parole board rejected those arguments after a closed-door meeting on Tuesday and denied Pye's bid for clemency.

How the murder is said to have unfolded

Pye had been in an on-and-off romantic relationship with Yarbrough, but at the time she was killed Yarbrough was living with another man. Pye, Chester Adams and a 15-year-old had planned to rob that man and bought a handgun before heading to a party in a nearby town, prosecutors have said.

The trio left the party around midnight and went to the house where Yarbrough lived, finding her alone with her baby. They forced their way into the house, stole a ring and necklace from Yarbrough and forced her to come with them, leaving the baby alone, prosecutors have said.

The group drove to a motel where they raped Yarbrough and then left the motel with her in the car, prosecutors said. They turned onto a dirt road and Pye ordered Yarbrough out of the car, made her lie face down and shot her three times, according to court filings.

Yarbrough's body was found on Nov. 17, 1993, a few hours after she was killed. Pye, Adams and the teenager were quickly arrested. Pye and Adams denied knowing anything about Yarbrough's death, but the teenager confessed and implicated the other two.

The teenager reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was the main witness at Pye's trial. A jury in June 1996 found Pye guilty of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and burglary, and sentenced him to death.

Long history of legal maneuvers

Pye's lawyers had argued in court filings that prosecutors relied heavily on the teenager's testimony but that he later gave inconsistent statements. Such statements, as well as Pye's testimony during trial, indicate that Yarbrough left the home willingly and went to the motel to trade sex for drugs, the lawyers said in court filings.

Lawyers representing Pye also wrote in court filings that their client was raised in extreme poverty in a home without indoor plumbing or access to sufficient food, shoes or clothing. His childhood was characterized by neglect and abuse by family members who were often drunk, his lawyers wrote.

His lawyers also argued that Pye suffered from frontal lobe brain damage, potentially caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, which harmed his planning ability and impulse control.

Pye's lawyers had long argued in courts that he should be resentenced because his trial lawyer didn't adequately prepare for the sentencing phase of his trial. His legal team argued that the original trial attorney failed to do a sufficient investigation into his "life, background, physical and psychiatric health" to present mitigating evidence to the jury during sentencing.

A federal judge rejected those claims, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Pye's lawyers in April 2021. But then the case was reheard by the full federal appeals court, which overturned the panel ruling in October 2022.

Pye's co-defendant Adams, now 55, pleaded guilty in April 1997 to charges of malice murder, kidnapping with bodily injury, armed robbery, rape and aggravated sodomy. He got five consecutive life prison sentences and remains behind bars.

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