The highest court in the land, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”), has granted a temporary stay of execution for a Georgia prisoner whose attorneys argued that his death sentence was tainted by the racial bias of one of the case’s jurors. According to a U.S. News report, 59-year-old Keith Leroy Tharpe was set to be put to death by lethal injection. The state of Georgia did not execute Tharpe while awaiting a decision from the court. Just before 11pm on the day he was scheduled to be put to death, the court announced the temporary stay. Now, the justices will decide whether or not to hear Tharpe’s case, but it is unknown when the court will decide to do so.
Tharpe was convicted by a Georgia court for murder and two counts of kidnapping for the slaying of Jaquelyn Freeman in 1990. Tharpe’s wife left him in August of that year, taking their four children with her to stay at her mother’s house. Despite a court order forbidding him to contact her, he and Freeman had an argument over the phone in September of 1990. Freeman was on her way to work with Tharpe’s estranged wife when he blocked her car with a truck he borrowed, ordered the women to step out of the car, and shot Freeman to death.
Juror Racial Bias
Three months after the murder Tharpe was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the death penalty. Years later, Tharpe’s legal team interviewed a caucasian juror from the case. The juror freely used racial epithets, including the N-word, according to filings by the attorneys. The juror, Barney Gattie, who has since passed away, said that Freeman was from a family of “good black folks” but Tharpe was not and therefore should be executed. During the interview the juror said he had “wondered if black people even have souls.” Gattie later stated that he was under the influence of alcohol when we spoke to Tharpe’s legal team, did not understand what his statements would be used for, and that his words were misconstrued. He claimed he voted for the death penalty because of the facts of the case and not based on race.
The prosecution argued that there was insufficient evidence to show juror bias affected the verdict and that the claim was barred by evidence rules. The state Supreme Court of Georgia refused to stop the execution.
SCOTUS Stay of Execution
The temporary stay of execution granted by the SCOTUS was based on a separate motion by Tharpe’s attorneys filed in federal court earlier this summer seeking to reopen his case based on allegations of juror racial bias. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the motion. Tharpes lawyers described a troubled childhood, including an extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse dating back to the age of 10, in a clemency application. The lawyers argued that Tharpe had turned over a new leaf devoting his life to God, kicked his crack addictions while in prison, and feels great remorse over Freeman’s killing. Had the execution gone as scheduled, Tharpe would have been the second prisoner executed this year by the state of Georgia and the 19th in the nation. In 2016, Georgia executed nine inmates.