Man seeks clemency to avoid what could be Georgia's first execution in more than 4 years

This image provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows inmate Willie James Pye. A judge on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, signed the order for the execution of Pye, who was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. The execution is set for March 20 at 7 p.m., after the judge set an execution window between noon that day and noon on March 27. (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

A Georgia man should not be executed because he is intellectually disabled and feels remorse for killing his former girlfriend three decades ago, his lawyers wrote in seeking clemency for him.

Willie James Pye, 59, is scheduled to be put to death Wednesday using the sedative pentobarbital in what would be the state’s first execution in more than four years. Pye was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough.

A clemency hearing is set for Tuesday. Those hearings are conducted in secret in Georgia, with the result announced afterward.

“Had defense counsel not abdicated his role, the jurors would have learned that Mr. Pye is intellectually disabled and has an IQ of 68,” Pye’s public defenders wrote in their clemency application.

“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.”

Pye’s lawyers also cited severe problems in the Spalding County justice system in the 1990s and said that Pye had been a positive influence on those around him while he was in prison.

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

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

They drove to a motel, where they took turns raping Yarbrough and then left the motel with her in the teenager’s car, prosecutors have 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 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.

Pye’s lawyers have argued in court filings that other statements the teen made are inconsistent with what he said at Pye’s trial. Those statements, as well as statements Pye made 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.

Pye’s lawyers also wrote in court filings that Pye 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 abused alcohol, his lawyers wrote.

His lawyers also argued that Pye suffered from brain damage, potentially caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, that harmed his ability to plan and control his impulses. They also argue that he is intellectually disabled and is therefore ineligible for execution, citing the findings of several experts who evaluated him.

Pye’s lawyers have long argued that he should be resentenced because his trial lawyer didn’t adequately prepare for the sentencing phase of his trial. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Pye’s lawyers in April 2021. But the full federal appeals court overturned that ruling in October 2022.

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.

Georgia’s last execution was in January 2020.


Associated Press writer Kate Brumback contributed.