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Archbishop, Activists Seek to Halt Execution of Intellectually Disabled Georgia Inmate

Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta is seen in this file photo from April 2020. (Photo: OSV News/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

WASHINGTON — In response to Georgia’s planned execution of a death row inmate by lethal injection March 20, the archbishop of Atlanta has urged the state parole board for clemency and state anti-death penalty activists launched an online petition similarly asking the state to reconsider.

Both pleas cited evidence of the inmate’s intellectual disability.

Willie Pye, 59, is scheduled to be put to death for the 1993 killing of his ex-girlfriend Alicia Lynn Yarbrough. He will be the first person executed in Georgia in four years, since executions were paused in the state in 2020 during the pandemic.

In a March 7 letter to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer said that the Christian faith “teaches us that we are bound to protect the most vulnerable among us. Mr. Pye has an established IQ of 68 and was never given the opportunity to have evidence of his intellectual disability raised at trial.” 

The archbishop said Pye’s execution would go against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia, a 2002 case where the court ruled that sentencing an intellectually disabled person to death violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

He also said the execution “would strike at the heart of our moral commitments as Christians and citizens of Georgia.”

Archbishop Hartmayer offered sympathy to the family of the murder victim and acknowledged that the state “has the right and the duty to seek justice for her. Nevertheless, we ask for mercy for Mr. Pye because he is a child of God, and our Christian faith teaches us that the life of every human person has worth and dignity. Justice cannot be found in the taking of another life.”

In its online petition that had 3,460 signatures the morning of March 12, Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty pointed out that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the execution of intellectually disabled people, adding that Georgia is the only state in the country that requires proof of intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” before an inmate can be declared ineligible for the death penalty.

“This is an unattainable standard,” the petition wrote. It also claimed that Spalding County, where Pye was tried and convicted almost 30 years ago, pursued the death penalty at a higher rate than counties of similar sizes and disproportionately against black people. Pye is African American.