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Ga. inmate seeks clemency to avoid state's first execution in more than 4 years

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lawyers for the death row inmate Willie James Pye go before the Georgia Parole Board today to plead for clemency. Pye is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday night. He has an intellectual disability. Chamian Cruz of our member station WABE reports.

CHAMIAN CRUZ, BYLINE: Willie James Pye was found guilty of murder, rape and kidnapping in the 1993 murder of his former girlfriend, Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. Now, anti-death penalty activists say the 59-year-old Black man has a low IQ, and earlier this week, they delivered more than 5,000 signatures to the Georgia Parole Board. Cathy Harmon-Christian is with the group Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

CATHY HARMON-CHRISTIAN: When someone commits a crime, that doesn't stop their right to life. And I just hope that we can all work together to make sure that Mr. Pye is not executed and many other people like him are no longer executed in the state of Georgia.

CRUZ: The U.S. Constitution prohibits the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, but Georgia is the only state in the country that requires, quote, "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" that someone is intellectually disabled. And to prove that is extremely difficult, says Lauren Sudeall, who teaches law at Vanderbilt University.

LAUREN SUDEALL: Even the state's own experts tested Mr. Pye's IQ at 68 and earlier tests that showed that he had an IQ of 70, which is firmly within the range of what would be considered an intellectual disability. And yet, under this beyond a reasonable doubt standard, that was impossible for Mr. Pye to prove.

CRUZ: In 2021, a federal court tossed out Pye's death sentence based on evidence that his lawyer failed to prepare him for the sentencing phase of his trial but it was reinstated on appeal. James Woodall with the Southern Center for Human Rights says it's clear Pye was not properly represented by his public defender because of his race.

JAMES WOODALL: Mr. Pye's family had nothing in a community of people who are already disadvantaged. And this is the kind of issues that this case brings forth for us, and is why we also have to ensure that the Board of Pardons and Paroles consider all of the facts.

CRUZ: Meanwhile, Yarbrough's family says they stand behind the court's decision to execute Pye. His lawyers say he has expressed remorse for killing her. If the execution moves forward, it would be Georgia's first in more than four years.

For NPR News, I'm Chamian Cruz in Atlanta.

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Chamian Cruz