Juror questioned whether black people have souls. Supreme Court wants a closer look at the case

The Observer editorial board

Keith Tharpe deserves no sympathy – but he does deserve basic fair treatment by the U.S. courts.

In 1990, Tharpe, angry that his wife had left him, pulled his truck in front of her car in Jones County, Ga. He ordered her and her sister, Jackie Freeman, out of the car. He shot Freeman with a shotgun, rolled her body into a ditch, reloaded and fired again, killing her. Freeman’s husband found her body in the ditch not long afterward.

It was an atrocious crime, and Tharpe deserved to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He was quickly sentenced to death by a unanimous jury.

But the U.S. Supreme Court rightly said today that his case needs a closer look. One of the jurors, Barney Gattie, who was white, revealed blatantly racist views about Tharpe and the case in a sworn and signed affidavit. Among them: Gattie said that from reading his Bible, he “wondered if black people even have souls.” He said “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N------” and that Tharpe was the latter.

The high court ruled 6-3 today that those remarks provide “a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.” It is at least debatable, and a federal appeals court erred by saying it’s not, the court said. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

Perhaps Tharpe would have been sentenced to death even without Gattie on the jury. But Gattie’s racist statements raise questions about whether Tharpe received a fair trial and sentence. That Gattie later claimed his comments were “misconstrued” and that he was drunk when he signed the affidavit does not change that.

Keith Tharpe AP

We oppose the death penalty, but at a minimum courts must ensure it is administered fairly and in a race-blind way.

Whether that happened in Tharpe’s case is in some doubt. Georgia law blocks consideration of juror testimony that could bring an earlier verdict into question. But in March of last 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.

Justice Thomas is right, and the majority acknowledged, that Tharpe’s execution still might eventually stand. But in America, even murderers have a right to a thorough judicial process and a sentencing free of racial bias.