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Supreme Court: Racist juror statement deserves consideration

Keith Tharpe, an African-American, was convicted of a terrible crime. In 1990, a Georgia jury said he had ambushed his wife and sister-in-law while they were driving to work. He murdered the sister-in-law and then kidnapped and raped his wife. The sister-in-law's body was later discovered in a ditch by her own husband.

Tharpe had been denied a habeas corpus appeal in the past, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered his case to be reconsidered. Several years after his conviction, appellate lawyers interviewed a juror and found he held racist beliefs against African-Americans.

If those racist beliefs affected the outcome of the case, Tharpe's conviction or sentence could be overturned. The lower courts had denied Tharpe the right to appeal based apparently on the mere assumption that the juror's racism had no effect. The Supreme Court has ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider whether that's true.

What did the juror say that indicated racism could be a factor?

The juror signed two affidavits a few days apart. In the first affidavit, the juror stated that "there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers."

He also said that some of the jurors "voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks," although he said that was not his reason.

"After studying the Bible," he added, "I have wondered if black people even have souls."

That affidavit was signed but not sworn to. The juror claimed later that the lawyers had deceived him, but he never retracted his statement before his death. However, he may have been drinking when the affidavit was signed, and he later claimed that some of the statements were not accurate or were taken out of context. The second affidavit gave non-racist reasons for the juror's vote for execution.

Whether the courts ultimately agree or disagree that the juror's racism affected the outcome of the case, the majority of the Supreme Court said the issue is significant enough that it must be debated.

The juror's "remarkable affidavit -- which he never retracted -- presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe's race affected [his] vote for a death verdict," wrote the majority. "At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court's factual determination was wrong. The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise."

A minority of the court focused on the gruesome nature of the crime and suggested that reconsidering the case in light of the juror's racism was a pointless exercise.

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