Mon, May

Georgia’s Execution of Willie Pye Will Highlight Capital Punishment’s Racist, Classist Immorality


DEATH PENALTY - With the arrival, in late January of this year, in Alabama, of a gruesome new method of executing death row prisoners by gassing them with nitrogen—producing a prolonged writhing, thrashing, gasping, and convulsing death on the execution gurney—in addition to the litany of lethal injection botches that occur in the U.S. with regularity, like in Idaho at the end of February, good people in this country, people who know the difference between right and wrong, hardly need additional evidence to be convinced of the death penalty’s immorality.  

Nevertheless, while it hasn’t executed anyone in over four years, Georgia’s determined to get back into the killing business starting with Willie Pye, an undisputedly low-intellectual functioning, borderline-to-actually intellectually disabled, abjectly poor, Black man. Pye was convicted of horrifically kidnapping, robbing, raping, and murdering his former girlfriend three decades ago. The Associated Press’s Kate Brumback reports, “The execution is scheduled for March 20 at 7 p.m., after the judge set an execution window between noon that day and noon on March 27.” 

Brumback notes Pye’s appellate lawyers argue Pye’s trial lawyer didn’t adequately investigate and present available mitigation evidence at Pye’s sentencing showing Pye’s “childhood was characterized by poverty, abuse and neglect. They also argued that he suffered from frontal-lobe brain damage, potentially caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, that harmed his ability to plan and control his impulses.” And procedurally, Brumback explains: “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.”  

Obscured by this terse albeit accurate distillation of the salient legal proceedings in Pye’s case’s thirty-year legal odyssey are several shocking and uncontested facts and circumstances that should cause all Americans to vociferously oppose Pye’s execution. And beyond that, beyond acknowledging that executing Pye would be mercilessly unjust, the reoccurring existence of the same bleak phenomena in Pye’s case in the overwhelming majority of death penalty cases—structural racism, crushing poverty, child abuse and neglect, and terrifically bad lawyering— highlights, in crystalline fashion, the immorality of capital punishment in America. Indeed, Pye’s case is a poster child for death penalty abolition.

Judge Jill Pryor, who authored the opinion granting Pye relief from execution in 2021—and a scathing dissent from the later majority opinion of the full 11th Circuit that reinstated Pye’s death sentence—provides, through her decisions, a portal by which the terrible realities of state executions in Georgia and how they impact the poorest Black people the most, and why, can be seen. While Pryor has published a massive amount of writing distilling the injustices in Pye’s case, and why Pye cannot be executed consistent with any fair determination of justice—writing worthy of every humanitarian and serious legal observer’s time and consideration—these are, in my opinion, some of her strongest, most salient points:       

  • Pye’s appointed attorney, Johnny Mostilier, was representing thousands of other people at the time he was representing Pye—including four other capital murder defendants.  
  • Because Mostilier couldn’t and didn’t expend enough time and effort investigating and otherwise preparing to present mitigating evidence to rebut the state’s case for the death penalty, Pye’s jury never heard “Pye was raised in abject poverty by parents who managed to feed and clothe their 10 children by the slimmest of margins. The family lived in a kind of poverty rarely witnessed in the United States, occupying a small four-room house with makeshift walls to separate the sleeping areas and no indoor plumbing or central heating.” 
  • The jury never heard about the extreme neglect Pye suffered as a child and how he rarely attended school, had enough food, proper clothing, and adult supervision, and how, in general, his alcoholic, emotionally and physically abusive mother “struggled as the sole provider for her six children.” 
  • When Pye was born his mother’s husband, also a drunkard, “was incarcerated and working on a chain gang,” but when he got out he returned home where he physically and emotionally terrorized his entire family—especially Pye, for whom he reserved his worst criticisms, tirades, and violent beatings.       

 Judge Pryor concluded what any feeling person would: “the reality for Mr. Pye is that he experienced the unthinkable as an infant, child, and adolescent.” And “[e]ven in the face of the aggravated crime Mr. Pye committed and the aggravating evidence presented,” it is reasonably probable “at least one juror would have voted for a sentence less than death had the jury heard what we know now about Mr. Pye.” 

Pye’s being executed now because Georgia’s grown tired of slumbering on capital punishment’s sideline. Seeking to rebound from its hiatus from state-sponsored killing, the “Peach State” is seemingly determined to descend into a deeper pit of evil by targeting for execution one of the most disadvantaged, discriminated upon, and profoundly damaged of her citizens, adding to what I characterized elsewhere, as “Georgia’s shameful record on executions.”   

All good people must oppose this.  

(Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public. defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on “X”/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq.)


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