Perhaps what is most unsettling about Georgia’s possible execution of a black man despite blatant racial bias against him is how many people were so quick to wash their hands of the matter.
Keith Tharpe was to be executed Tuesday night for the 1990 killing of his sister-in-law, Jackie Freeman, but the U.S. Supreme Court delayed it at the last minute.
A juror in Tharpe’s case, in a signed affidavit in 1998, revealed himself to be a virulent racist. Barney Gattie said that from reading his Bible, he “wondered if black people even have souls.” He said there are two kinds of black people: “good black folks” and “n------” and that he considered Tharpe to be the latter. He made many other racist comments to Tharpe’s lawyers. He later said the affidavit “misconstrued” his comments.
Tharpe’s execution is now on hold while the high court decides whether to hear his case. If it doesn’t, or if the justices ultimately rule against Tharpe, he will be executed despite the juror’s indisputable racial bias.
It’s an egregious example of the flaws built into the death penalty’s administration in the United States. Person after person, institution after institution, wasn’t bothered enough by Gattie’s remarks to block Tharpe’s execution.
A state court judge rejected appeals. A federal judge in Macon declined to reopen the case. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the concerns that Tharpe was not given an impartial jury. The George Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency on Tuesday. The Georgia Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, denied a stay of execution Tuesday afternoon. And Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch of the U.S. Supreme Court thought Tharpe should be executed without giving his case a closer look.
Georgia law blocks consideration of juror testimony that could bring an earlier verdict into question. But in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to a fair trial supersedes such laws when racial animus influenced the verdict or sentence.
The explicit nature of the bias against Tharpe is unusual, but bias in the death penalty is typical. Study after study has shown that, whatever you think of its morality, capital punishment is plagued with prejudice. Whether a person gets death or life in prison hinges as much on his income, race and the race of the victim as it does the severity or other circumstances of the crime.
Tharpe’s case also might help illustrate why so many African-Americans, including protesting NFL players, believe the scales of justice are tilted against them. In America, apparently, a man can be executed despite overwhelming evidence of racial bias at trial.
Tharpe is not a sympathetic figure, to be sure, even with his IQ of 74. His crime was atrocious, and he deserves life in prison without parole. He does not, however, deserve to be railroaded to death without due process and a fair trial. America must be better than that.