Georgia Sets March 20 Execution Date for Willie Pye Despite Strong Evidence of Intellectual Disability and Previous Finding of Ineffective Representation by Attorney with History of Racial Bias

Posted on Mar 07, 2024

The Georgia Attorney General has announced that Willie James Pye, who previously had his death sentence reversed due to his attorney’s failure to investigate his background, only to see the death sentence reinstated on appeal, is set to be executed on March 20. Mr. Pye’s court-appointed trial attorney, Johnny Mostiler, has been accused of ineffective representation or racial bias in at least four cases involving Black defendants and reportedly called one of his own clients a “little n****r.” Mr. Pye also has “undisputed” signs of intellectual disability, with an IQ of 68 and a history of learning difficulties. Georgia has not conducted an execution in over four years, and Mr. Pye is the state’s first scheduled execution date in about two years.

Mr. Pye was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996 for the kidnapping, robbery, rape, and murder of his ex-girlfriend Alicia Yarbrough. At the time, Mr. Mostiler had a lump-sum deal with Spalding County to represent the entire indigent criminal caseload, which numbered some 800 felony and five capital cases. He also had an active private civil practice. Mr. Mostiler only spent about 150 hours on Mr. Pye’s case, including the trial itself, while studies have found that thousands of hours are typically required for effective capital defense representation. He also spent less than five hours preparing the case for a life sentence, most of it on the day of the penalty phase and the day before. Due to his limited investigation, he did not uncover evidence of Mr. Pye’s traumatic upbringing and intellectual disability. Mr. Pye grew up experiencing “near-constant physical and emotional abuse, extreme parental neglect, endangerment, and abject poverty.” He battled severe depressive episodes and reported hearing voices prior to the killing. However, Mr. Mostiler relied on Mr. Pye’s sister to recruit family members as witnesses and told them only to testify to Mr. Pye’s good character, without delving into the difficulties of Mr. Pye’s childhood. He did not request any evaluation of Mr. Pye’s intellectual functioning or develop any evidence regarding the claim.

Kenneth Fults

At least three of Mr. Mostiler’s clients have been executed, including Kenneth Fults and Curtis Osborne; Mr. Mostiler infamously slept through portions of Mr. Fults’ trial, and he told a white client that he would spend much more money on his case than on Mr. Osborne’s because “that little n****r deserves the chair.” In Frederick Whatley’s case, Mr. Mostiler allowed the prosecution to force Mr. Whatley to reenact the murder while shackled in manacles and leg irons. Justice Sonia Sotomayor later wrote that it was “hard to imagine a more prejudicial example of needless shackling.” A 2001 profile of Mr. Mostiler following his death found that he had handled “more than seven times the number of indigent cases the American Bar Association (ABA) believes is manageable…turning over one case every 100 minutes, less time than a private attorney might devote to a simple traffic violation.” The profile called him the “archetype” of “meet ’em, greet ’em, and plead ’em” lawyers. 

In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned Mr. Pye’s death sentence, unanimously finding that Mr. Mostiler failed to investigate and present a broad range of available mitigating and rebuttal evidence. The panel did not reach the merits of Mr. Pye’s intellectual disability claim, writing that the ineffective assistance claim was sufficient to require a new sentencing trial, but highlighted substantial evidence of Mr. Pye’s low cognitive functioning. However, on the state’s motion, the Eleventh Circuit reconvened en banc (with the full court) and reinstated Mr. Pye’s death sentence. The court acknowledged that Mr. Mostiler’s performance was deficient, but held that it was required under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) to defer to the state court’s finding that Mr. Mostiler’s performance did not prejudice Mr. Pye. The majority interpreted AEDPA and Supreme Court precedent to conclude that even if the state court’s decision rests on clear errors, federal courts must defer to that decision if there are “additional rationales” that support it. In other words, the federal reviewing court may theorize reasons for the state court’s outcome and adopt those reasons to justify a state court decision that is otherwise wrong on the facts or the law.

Judge Jill Pryor

Two judges dissented in full, while two additional judges joined the dissent in part but concurred in the judgment. Dissenting Judge Jill Pryor wrote that the majority had directly violated Supreme Court precedent by “turning to justifications the state never even hinted at” and relying on “a half-baked textual analysis” in support. She further argued that the holding “creates a practically impossible path to relief for habeas petitioners…[i]f federal courts can bury unreasonable findings under an avalanche of new reasons the state court never gave, then unreasonable findings will virtually never be important enough to satisfy the majority’s test.” 

Judge Pryor also noted the “undisputed evidence” of Mr. Pye’s low intellectual functioning. Supreme Court jurisprudence and scientific research recognize IQ scores below 70 as a strong, often definitive indicator of intellectual disability. Georgia has one of the lowest appellate success rates of intellectual disability claims by capital defendants, with an 11% success rate compared to 82% in neighboring North Carolina. Georgia is also the only state that requires defendants to prove their intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt” at trial, and a 2017 study found that only one defendant had ever been found exempt from the death penalty on these grounds in three decades. Research shows that states that significantly deviate from accepted clinical standards, including Georgia, are much less likely to exempt defendants from the death penalty based on intellectual disability.

Judge Pryor concluded that under the majority’s ruling, the “writ of habeas corpus is illusory—impossible, even, to obtain.” She wrote that as the author of the panel opinion, reading the full court’s opinion made her feel like she had “stepped through the looking glass.” However, “what happened during Alice’s time through the looking glass was a dream…This case, unfortunately, is not.”  


American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), Defining Criteria for Intellectual Disability (accessed March 6, 2024); Georgia Office of the Attorney General, Execution Date Set for Willie James Pye, Press Release, February 29, 2024; Pye v. Emmons, Petition for Certiorari (2023); Pye v. Prison, 50 F.4th 1025 (11th Cir. 2022); Pye v. Warden, No. 18 – 12147 (11th Cir. 2021); Lauren Sudeall Lucas, An Empirical Assessment of Georgia’s Beyond A Reasonable Doubt Standard To Determine Intellectual Disability In Capital Cases, 33 Georgia State University Law Review 553 (2017); John H. Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson, Paul Marcus, and Emily Paavola, A Tale of Two (and Possibly Three) Atkins: Intellectual Disability and Capital Punishment Twelve Years After the Supreme Court’s Creation of a Categorical Bar, 23 William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 393 (2014); Wilson v. Sellers (2018); Osborne v. Terry (11th Cir. 2006); American Bar Association, Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases, 31 Hofstra Law Review 913 (2003); Alan Berlow, Requiem for a Public Defender, The American Prospect, December 192001