ATLANTA — A Georgia death row inmate whose planned execution was halted in September 2017 by the U.S. Supreme Court after his lawyers argued his death sentence was tainted by a juror’s racial bias has died, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Keith “Bo” Tharpe, 61, died of natural causes Friday, Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath confirmed in an email Sunday.
In 1991, a jury convicted Tharpe of murder in the September 1990 slaying of his sister-in-law, Jacquelyn Freeman, and sentenced him to death.
In interviews with Tharpe’s legal team years later, juror Barney Gattie, who has since died, freely used a racial slur in referring to Tharpe.
Freeman and her husband’s family were “good black folks,” Gattie said but Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did.” He went on to say that his study of the Bible had led him to question “if black people even have souls.”
Tharpe had been scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2017, but the appointed time came and went with legal challenges still pending. More than three hours later, just after 10:30 that night, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a temporary stay.
A few months later in January 2018, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta — which had already rejected Tharpe’s appeal — for further consideration. The 11th Circuit in April 2018 again rejected Tharpe’s appeal, and he appealed to the Supreme Court again.
The high court last March declined to consider the appeal. When that denial was issued, Justice Sonia Sotomayor included a statement saying she agreed that it was appropriate for the court to decline to hear the appeal but that she was “profoundly troubled by the underlying facts of this case.”
No court has ever considered the merits of Tharpe’s juror racial bias claim, Sotomayor wrote. State and federal courts have rejected his requests on procedural grounds.
Tharpe’s petition to the Supreme Court asked the high court to decide whether the 11th Circuit had made the wrong call on procedural rulings, not whether his claim of juror racial bias has merit, Sotomayor wrote. For that reason, she wrote, the decision to reject his appeal was the right one.
But Sotomayor called the evidence of juror bias presented by Tharpe’s lawyers “truly striking.”
“These racist sentiments, expressed by a juror entrusted with a vote over Tharpe’s fate, suggest an appalling risk that racial bias swayed Tharpe’s sentencing,” she wrote.
Tharpe’s wife left him in August 1990, taking their four daughters to live with her mother. About a month later, on Sept. 25, 1990, Tharpe’s wife was driving to work with her brother’s wife when Tharpe used a truck to block them. Armed with a shotgun, he ordered them out of their vehicle and fatally shot Freeman.
About three months after the killing, Tharpe was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
One of Tharpe’s lawyers, Marcia Widder, said in an emailed statement after his death that “the courts’ failure to confront the racism tainting Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence remains a stain on the judicial system and calls for increased efforts to eradicate the poison of racism in our criminal courts.”
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