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Georgia executes Willie Pye in its first execution since before the pandemic

Georgia executes Willie Pye in its first execution since before the pandemic
Georgia late Wednesday executed a man for the first time since January 2020, joining other states that have revived the practice as the death penalty in the U.S. entered a new frontier of punishment this year.

Willie James Pye, 59, was convicted in the 1993 killing of an ex-girlfriend. He was executed at 11:03 p.m. at a state prison in Butts County, south of Atlanta, the state Department of Corrections said.

“Pye did accept a final prayer and did not record a final statement,” the department said.

His execution at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson occurred hours after its scheduled time of 7 p.m., after an appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected efforts to postpone it.

His request for clemency from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles was rejected Tuesday. The board has “the sole constitutional authority to grant clemency in a death penalty case” in Georgia, it said.

death row inmate convicted mugshot mug (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)
death row inmate convicted mugshot mug (Georgia Department of Corrections via AP)

Anti-death penalty groups had tried to halt the execution of Pye, who is Black, arguing that he was represented by a court-appointed attorney accused of using a racial slur in another Black man’s case and that his records show he has signs of an intellectual disability, potentially caused by fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Had defense counsel not abdicated his role, the jurors would have learned that Mr. Pye is intellectually disabled and has an IQ of 68,” his lawyers argued in a request for clemency.

state execution chamber location (Erik S. Lesser / AFP/Getty Images file)state execution chamber location (Erik S. Lesser / AFP/Getty Images file)

state execution chamber location (Erik S. Lesser / AFP/Getty Images file)

Pye had lost a previous appeal on the grounds that Georgia, at the time a death warrant was signed for him, had not fulfilled certain requirements to restart executions created as a result of the Covid pandemic. Those requirements included the return of normal visitations at state prisons.

Pye’s lawyers argued that after the state decided he would be executed, they were having issues getting in contact with him: “This is not normal or consistent with access to and availability to counsel that was previously possible, and it is unacceptable.”

Pye’s last meal request was two chicken sandwiches, two cheeseburgers, french fries, two bags of plain potato chips and two lemon-lime sodas, the Georgia Department of Corrections said.

The last execution in Georgia was in January 2020. There were 36 men and one woman under death sentence in Georgia, including Pye.

Other states have resumed executions in recent years, but efforts to use a primary method of lethal injection have grown increasingly harder as drugmakers have pulled back on access to the ingredients for executions.

Idaho attempted its first execution in 12 years last month but had to abandon the procedure after prison staff members could not establish an IV line on the inmate’s legs or arms. His lawyers called it a “badly botched execution attempt.” No new date was immediately set.

In January, Alabama, which has had difficulties obtaining lethal injection drugs, carried out the first execution in the country using nitrogen gas. Other states, including Louisiana, are eyeing the use of the controversial method with their own protocols.

But Georgia has said it has been able to procure the sedative pentobarbital to carry out death sentences by lethal injection.

Pye was convicted in Spalding County in the death of ex-girlfriend Alicia Yarbrough. Prosecutors said Pye, another man and a teenager went to her home, stole jewelry and abducted her as she was watching her baby. They took her to a motel and raped her, and Pye later shot her multiple times, according to court filings.

The teenager agreed to a plea deal, and the other defendant received five consecutive life prison sentences.

During the sentencing phase of Pye’s trial, in which he was given the death penalty, prosecutors suggested in closing arguments that he might kill a prison guard to escape. Lawyers attempted to appeal the punishment, citing the speculative remarks, but the state Supreme Court upheld the sentence in 1998.

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