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Justices give Georgia death row inmate new round of appeals

10 January 2018

The Supreme Court on Monday gave a convicted murderer a second chance at appealing his death sentence after one of the jurors made racist statements about the defendant.

In a 6-3 ruling on Monday, the highest U.S. court decided that Keith Tharpe, who is black, deserves another chance to appeal his 1990 murder conviction.

White juror Barney Gattie said in a sworn affidavit that "a$3 fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls".

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But, the court continued, the affidavit (which the court described as "remarkable") nonetheless "presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe's race affected" the juror's vote for the death penalty. "The (U.S. Court of Appeals for the) Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise".

Previously, a state post-conviction court rejected Tharpe's petition, finding that he could not prove juror misconduct because Georgia law doesn't allow parties to impeach jury verdicts with post-trial testimony, and he did not raise the issue on direct appeal.

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.

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The U.S. Supreme Court had already halted Tharpe's scheduled execution the night it was initially scheduled in September. Gattie signed an affidavit, though he later testified that he voted to sentence Tharpe to death because of the evidence against him. 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. Gattie told them in a signed statement that "there are two types of black people: 1".

Justice Clarence Thomas called the court's unsigned opinion "ceremonial handwringing" in a dissent that predicted Tharpe ultimately would lose his appeal. A Jones County jury convicted Tharpe and sentenced him to die for Freeman's murder during a trial held just three months after the crimes.

"The court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that affidavit, and must want to do something about it", Justice Thomas wrote. "But the court's decision is no profile in moral courage".

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In the 13-page dissenting opinion, Thomas accused his fellow justices of "bending the rules" to show "concern for racial justice" and said it further delayed justice for Freeman, "the black woman who was brutally murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago". But in March of past 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.

Justices give Georgia death row inmate new round of appeals