Supreme Court cites juror's racist comment in death penalty reprieve

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The Supreme Court on Monday gave a black death row inmate in Georgia a chance to challenge his death sentence because a white juror in his case later used a racial epithet in an affidavit and questioned whether black people have souls.

Keith Tharpe has been sentenced to death in Georgia for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, but the court ordered a new look at his request for an appeal of that 1991 death sentence, reports USA Today. Reportedly, Gattie used racial slurs when describing Tharpe, and alleged his knowledge of the Bible led him to wonder "if black people even have souls".

"Gattie's remarkable affidavit-which he never retracted-presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe's race affected Gattie's vote for a death verdict", the majority wrote. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which declined even to hear Tharpe's appeal, needs to give it closer scrutiny, the Supreme Court said.

On Sept. 25, 1990, Tharpe drove a pickup truck to intercept his estranged wife and her sister in law, Jaquelin Freeman, as they set out for their jobs in Macon. He was quickly sentenced to death by a unanimous jury.

The majority in Tharpe v. Sellers acknowledges that Tharpe faces a "high bar" for showing that jurists of reason could find that that the district court abused its discretion in denying his motion. Today the Supreme Court threw Tharpe a lifeline by sending his case back to the lower courts.

Two members of Tharpe's jury were black, according to a dissent written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Also, Gattie told Tharpe's lawyers that some jurors thought Tharpe should receive the death penalty as an example to black people who kill other blacks.

Study after study shows that juries are far more likely to convict a black person for murder and far more likely to give them the death penalty, but the Supreme Court has done nearly nothing to help fix that.

It also noted Mr. Gattie later issued a second affidavit, and said his previous statements were out of context and carried out after he had been drinking. They found that the jury had not been prejudiced against Tharpe. Back when Clarence Thomas was going through his confirmation hearings, he said that his presence on the court would be valuable because, as a black man who was raised in extreme poverty, he would have compassion and understanding for the circumstances of numerous people whose cases came before the court.

The majority's decision "merely delays Tharpe's inevitable execution", Thomas said. "But the court's decision is no profile in moral courage". But in March of previous year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to a fair trial supersedes such laws when racial animus influenced the verdict or sentence.

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