As Georgia Prepares to Execute Willie Pye, a Deceased Lawyer’s Incompetence Looms Commentary
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As Georgia Prepares to Execute Willie Pye, a Deceased Lawyer’s Incompetence Looms

It is hard to imagine a man much more marginalized than Willie Pye, who Georgia plans to execute on Mar. 20. Undeniably, the 1993 murder that landed him on death row was heinous. But as his death march nears, it bears considering whether the converging histories of poverty and abuse that defined his youth, paired with his known intellectual disability, should have militated against a sentence of death and in favor of life imprisonment. The problem is: egregiously ineffective counsel at Pye’s mid-1990s trial left the jury with none of this context. And this week, we will wait to see whether the ineffectiveness of his trial attorney will determine Pye’s ultimate fate, or whether we as a society have evolved to the extent of being able to offer criminal defendants a fair trial.

Pye was tried and convicted of the capital murder of his ex-partner, Alicia Lynn Yarbrough, between May and June 1996. At the time, he was represented by a court-appointed attorney, Johnny B. Mostiler, who was simultaneously representing thousands of other criminal defendants, including four other defendants facing capital punishment, according to 2021 court documents. In addition to being overworked by anyone’s standards, ample evidence has emerged over the year of Mostiler’s deeply racist worldview.

It is in this context that Mostiler overlooked a mountain of readily available mitigating evidence in Pye’s case — evidence described by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021 as follows: “The evidence trial counsel failed to investigate and present ‘adds up to a mitigation case that bears no relation to the few naked pleas for mercy actually put before the jury.’”

This evidence shows Pye suffered egregious economic and emotional deprivation as well as beyond-the-pale physical and mental suffering in his childhood, which court papers describe in terms so bleak, so bereft of love, stability, and normalcy, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist would bawl to hear them, Pye lived in an uninhabitable dwelling where he existed in the margins of human existence — even by poor Georgia standards — with no schooling, heat or air conditioning, and never enough to eat.

Undoubtedly, the crimes at the heart of Pye’s case were indefensible. But ahead of any death penalty deliberation, a jury must be given a full picture of a person’s life before they can determine a just sentence.

Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative — spearheaded by legendary lawyer Bryan Stevenson — publishes a manual to assist capital defense attorneys. that manual makes clear that the main thing standing between the life and death of a condemned client is the amount of effort expended by their lawyer. As I’ve argued elsewhere and maintain to this day: This is a terrifying reality, and an unconscionable responsibility for any lawyer to bear — one of many reasons why the United States should abolish the death penalty immediately. With Mostiler serving as his lawyer, the barrier between Willie Pye and execution was thinner than the top layer of crust on a just-baked pecan pie, but flakier and more susceptible to falling apart.

As described above, Mostiler’s case load was so unwieldy that even if he had wanted to, he would not have had the time and labor resources required to properly investigate and and rebut the state’s case for the death penalty.

Five years after Pye was sentenced to death, in December 2001, Alan Berlow writing for The American Prospect in a tellingly titled piece, “Requiem for a Public Defender,” described a day when 50 men and women, predominately Black — who were scheduled to be tried at the Spalding County Courthouse in Griffin, Georgia — were waiting to talk to Mostiler: “a heavyset lawyer with a silver beard, a handlebar mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses … his hands sparkling with six gold, diamond, and onyx rings, his wrists with three gold bracelets.”

Berlow continued, “The 53-year-old attorney, who died of a massive heart attack on April 1, was perhaps the archetype of what many public defenders refer to as ‘meet’em, greet’em, and plead’em’ lawyers: attorneys who dispense with huge numbers of cases in a minimal amount of time.”

The above description taken together with Mostiler’s shameful history of racist sentiments paints a bleak picture of Pye’s trial rights.

Court documents from a 2006 ineffective counsel case against Mostiler reveal testimony that the trial lawyer on multiple occasions used egregiously offensive racial slurs to describe clients who he believed “deserve[d]” the death penalty or “the chair.”

In April 2021, the 11th Circuit Court found that Pye’s death sentence should be reconsidered in the framework of the mitigating evidence. But six months later, the same court determined en banc that in fact, federal courts should defer to the state court’s determination that “Mostiler’s failure to further investigate Pye’s difficult childhood and present this mitigating evidence at sentencing wasn’t prejudicial.” This latter decision hinged in part on Georgia’s statutory requirement that capital punishment can only be imposed by unanimous jury decision, and that a finding of prejudice requires a finding of “a substantial likelihood that at least one juror would have voted against the death penalty.”

I would argue that any reasonable, empathetic person would have been swayed by a true and proper recounting of Pye’s upbringing. As former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove so poignantly explained: “[E]very person contains a story that, if told well, would resonate within us no matter how strange or unfamiliar the circumstances, bound as we are by the instincts and yearnings of human existence.”

Supreme Court Justice William Brennan famously observed “[It] is tempting to pretend that minorities on death row share a fate in no way connected to our own, that our treatment of them sounds no echoes beyond the chambers in which they die. Such an illusion is ultimately corrosive, for the reverberations of injustice are not so easily confined.” And as evidenced by the impending execution of Willie Pye, “the way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

If Georgia moves forward with executing Willie Pye, please let there be no talk of morality, of fairness, of justice. Because there is none to be found here.

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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