‘I’m at peace.’ Willie James Pye thanked family, prison staff before execution

Pye recorded statement inside his cell
Willie James Pye was executed on Wednesday March 20 at 11:03 p.m. Pye was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough.

Credit: Photo provided by Willie James Pye's attorneys

Credit: Photo provided by Willie James Pye's attorneys

Willie James Pye was executed on Wednesday March 20 at 11:03 p.m. Pye was convicted of murder and other crimes in the November 1993 killing of Alicia Lynn Yarbrough.

Willie James Pye slept well on death row.

Condemned by a Spalding County jury more than 30 years ago, Pye said he felt at ease as the end drew near. In a statement recorded hours before his death, he thanked his family, prison guards and the warden of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison.

“I’m just so thankful and I’m so uplifted,” Pye said in a calm, even tone. “I’m so at peace.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested the audio and, as is the newspaper’s longstanding practice, sent a reporter to witness the execution.

His death sentence was the first carried out in Georgia in more than four years; the deadly pandemic paused executions for a time.

Pye declined to say anything in the moments before receiving a deadly injection of pentobarbital just after 11 p.m. March 20. His statement was recorded about 5:20 p.m.

“I did want to be thankful to the entire staff at this prison, Jackson prison,” he said. “Everybody treated me very well, I mean very well.”

Views of Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, Ga. where Willie James Pye, was executed on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Pye was convicted of killing Alicia Lynn Yarbrough, with whom he had a sporadic relationship, in Spalding County in November 1993.

“I’m not going to go into my case or nothing like that because I’ve already been convicted,” he said in the recording. “They already decided what they want to do and what they are not going to do.”

A jury convicted Pye on June 6, 1996 and recommended a death sentence the following day. The Georgia Pardons and Parole Board denied clemency the day before the execution. Attorneys for Pye made a last minute effort to spare Pye’s life, but the U.S. Supreme Court denied Pye’s final appeal shortly before 10 p.m., clearing the way for his execution.

Pye spent most of his last two days with people who visited him in person or talking on the phone, according to activity logs provided by the Georgia Department of Correction. Entries to the log were made by officers who interacted with Pye inside the death watch cell, which is the cell people set to be executed are held at, starting at 7 a.m. on March 19.

Pye spent most of his final full day either on the phone or at visitation, officers noted on the logs. At 4:15 p.m. on March 19, a medical exam was performed on Pye. An hour later, Pye was on the phone and later told staff that his bid for clemency was denied. “He is okay,” a log entry said.

Pye continued to talk to people on the phone until around 10 p.m., when he went to sleep.

On March 20, the day he was put to death, Pye refused breakfast around 4 a.m. and went back to sleep until 7:15 a.m., when he took a shower. Shortly after 8 a.m., Pye was back on the phone and spent the day on calls or with visitors, the logs show.

Pye was checked by medical staff around 3:15 p.m. and received his last meal at 4:18 p.m. He requested two Tylenol pills for a headache.

He recorded a statement around 5:16 p.m and was given a dose of Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug, by medical staff around 7:21 p.m., logs show.

Pye continued to talk on the phone late into the night. He talked to his lawyers for a bit more than an hour before sitting on his bed and waiting to be escorted to the death chamber.

The escort team arrived at 10:30 p.m.

Inside the death chamber, Pye accepted a prayer. The clergy member present asked God to help Pye experience grace and mercy.

His death warrant was then read aloud by the warden. Pye looked up at the ceiling briefly before closing his eyes for the last time.

“Just to make a long story short, my time has been just at ease and I’m so at ease and at peace, all because of the staff here,” Pye said at the end of his recorded statement. “Wonderful warden and he made everything easy for me.”

Staff reporters Shaddi Abusaid and Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.