Justice System Failed Man Who Was Sentenced To Death For Being Black

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A Georgia black man was condemned to death thanks in part to a racist juror who called him the N-word.

Sign reads "condemned row" above door.

The United States Supreme Court stayed an execution of Keith Tharpe, a man who was arguably sentenced to death because he was black.

Tharpe was scheduled to die on Sept. 26 for murdering his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Freeman, but the justices intervened and granted a stay as they consider whether to take up his appeal. 

In 1991, Tharpe went on trial for a case involving murder and sexual assault in Jones County, Atlanta, which eventually led to Tharpe’s death sentence. But among the jurors, there was one white member who proudly boasted he had supported the capital punishment against Tharpe because he was a black man, calling the defendant the N-word.

But that wasn’t all.

The prosecutor in this case, then-District Attorney Joseph Briley, was known for relying on discriminatory practices during the jury selection period, often excluding African Americans in cases involving black defendants.

During the jury selection process of Tharpe’s case, Briley was able to shut down five out of the eight black jurors who had been deemed qualified. But one of the jurors embraced by Briley was Berney Gattie, a retired truck driver who had allegedly been drinking when he first talked to the defense. When prosecutors read Gattie’s first sworn statement filled with racially charged statements, they rushed to his residence to get him to swear he wasn’t a bigot and to claim that his first comments had been “taken out of context and simply not accurate.” After signing a second affidavit, Gattie was allowed to join the jurors.

Later, Gattie also said that there were only two kinds of black people in the world, “regular black folks” and the N-word when talking to lawyers working on Tharpe’s post-conviction appeal in 1998.

During that interview, Gattie added that if the victim in this case had been one of the N-word, he wouldn’t have given much thought about her death. But since the victim was a member of the “good black families,” that made a difference to him when judging Tharpe.

While that sentiment was apparent in 1991 because prosecutors had worked to get Gattie a second “clean” affidavit, prosecutor Briley was still accused of being biased against blacks by keeping qualified black jurors from being a part of the final jury. Despite the accusations, the trial judge failed to see bad faith on Briley’s part and Gattie remained as juror until the end.

Whenever Tharpe's attorneys tried to appeal, Georgia courts refused to acknowledge Gattie’s first sworn statement, choosing to, instead, claim that Tharpe waited too long to learn one of his jurors was a racist. That allowed judges to ignore his attorneys’ prejudice claims.

During an interview in 1998, Gattie contemplated whether "if black people even have souls," again indicating how evidently this death sentence was based on racism. 

Tharpe, like any other American, is protected by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the defendant’s right “to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” While thankfully the Supreme Court was able to step in, the fact that Tharpe was denied this right initially simply reinforces the notion that racial prejudice plays a major part in this country’s corrupt justice system.

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

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