Helena Lyng Blak
8 weeks ago

The execution of convicted murderer Willie James Pye and the controversial question of capital punishment

EU: “We deplore the fact that this execution took place.”
Vial And Vintage Syringe With Medicine On An Old Book Of Capital Punishment
felipe caparros / Shutterstock.com

On March 20, 2024, for the first time in four years, the US state of Georgia carried out the execution of an inmate.

The inmate, Willie James Pye, was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough in 1993.

The execution has reignited the ongoing disagreement between the US and the vast majority of its allies regarding capital punishment.

The state of capital punishment in today’s world 

Among the countries generally dubbed ‘developed,’ very few still retain capital punishment.

Globally, 109 countries, including all European Union member states, have completely abolished the practice. Meanwhile, 10 countries still allow capital punishment under exceptional circumstances, such as during war. Although 23 countries technically retain capital punishment in their judicial systems, they have not carried out any executions in 10 years or more. In total, 53 countries actively implement capital punishment in both law and practice.

The US falls into the latter category, alongside Japan, Singapore, China, and most Islamic states. Belarus is the only European country that still applies the death penalty.

However, the topic is not uncontroversial within American borders. The American Medical Association argued against the participation of physicians in state-mandated executions, writing in a 2018 brief that participation in executions “falsely suggests to society that capital punishment can be carried out humanely, with the endorsement of the medical profession. Physicians should not further such a charade.”

Diplomatic discussions

Exchanges surrounding the legality of the death penalty have been going back and forth between the US and the EU for a while. 

In 2020, the EU’s External Action (EEAS) stated, “We regret that capital punishment continues to be applied in some states of the United States of America and in Japan, both observer States to the Council of Europe. Last year, 22 people were executed in seven states of the US, and three men were executed in Japan.”

In 2023, the EEAS again condemned the application of the death penalty, arguing that it is incompatible with the principles of human dignity and the inalienable right to life, furthermore indicating that the practice goes against international law which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people. 

“The death penalty is discriminatory: it disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and those in most vulnerable situations,” states the EEAS. 

Elaborating that, “Where retained, it can become a tool for instilling fear, repressing opposition, and quashing the legitimate exercise of human rights, such as the rights to the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.”

In late 2023, the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) responded to European criticisms, stating that, “International law does not prohibit capital punishment, nor is capital punishment in contravention of OSCE commitments.”

The US Mission to the OSCE continued, defending its position, “The judicial system in the United States provides a system of protections at the state and federal levels intended to ensure that implementation of the death penalty is undertaken, after multiple layers of judicial review, in conformity with the U.S. Constitution and U.S. international obligations.“

The reply concludes that, “We reaffirm our longstanding opposition to the use of the death penalty after trials that do not respect fair trial guarantees, or for crimes that do not meet the ‘most serious crimes’ threshold for capital punishment, as required under international law.“

The case of Willie James Pye

The 1993 murder of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough who was around 21 years old at the time could readily be defined as one of those ‘most serious crimes’. 

The details of the case are truly brutal. Pye and two accomplices, a 15-year old person and a man by the name of Chester Adams forced their way into Yarbrough’s house where she was alone with her young child. They kidnapped her, leaving the child behind, before violently sexually assaulting her and ultimately murdering her. 

One of the co-conspirators, the teenager, testified against Pye and Adams, and in 1996 a jury found Pye guilty of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, rape and burglary, and sentenced him to death, according to AP News.

Pye would go on to appeal his case all the way to the US Supreme Court. His legal team argued that he should not be executed due to an intellectual disability and initial poor legal counsel. 

CNN quotes his attorney Nathan Potek, who, following Pye’s execution, said, “The State of Georgia obtained Willie’s death sentence only after providing him a racist and incompetent defense attorney. And the State has insisted on standing by that death sentence in spite of his lifelong intellectual disability.” 

The EEAS also responded negatively to the US Supreme Court’s decision, writing in a press release last week: “We deplore the fact that this execution took place despite evidence indicating that the convict had an intellectual disability.”

The diplomatic service of the union argued that, “The use of the death penalty for persons with such impairments is explicitly prohibited by international standards on the human rights of those facing the death penalty.”

The EEAS highlighted that the US Supreme Court outlawed executions of individuals with intellectual disabilities. According to Pye’s lawyers, he had an IQ of 68. 


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