The n-word has a long, sordid history in this country. The African-American Registry says that, “Nigger is one of the most notorious words in American culture.”
The precise origins of the word in American culture is uncertain, but history does inform us that, as the African-American Registry says, by the early 1800s the word had firmly established itself as a derogative term systematically used to debase an entire people.
The n-word is truly unspeakable. No word in the American lexicon is more vile, more despicable. It literally robs a race of people of their humanity. That one word has been used to justify the murder, rape, lynching, and beatings of black people throughout the past two centuries.
Racist Juror Sits on Death Penalty Case
And it was the n-word that was instrumental in sending Keith Tharpe to a death cell in the State of Georgia, a state with an ugly history of racism.
In August 1990, Tharpe was embroiled in a volatile marriage from which his wife was forced to flee. A month later Tharpe called his wife threatening her. The next day he intercepted his wife and her sister as the two drove to work. He shot and killed his sister-in-law, Jacquelyn Freeman. He shot her three times with a shotgun, reloading in the process. He then kidnapped his wife and sexually assaulted her while she was held hostage.
Bernie Gattie was a white man. He served on the jury that convicted Tharpe and gave him the death sentence. He was also an avowed racist, prone to using the n-word when speaking about black people. He is now deceased.
Years after Tharpe was convicted and while he was sitting on death row, his attorney began to interview jurors in the case, including Gattie. The racist juror told the attorney that Freeman came from a “good black family” which he was why he voted for the death penalty against Tharpe. He said that had Tharpe been more like Freeman, he would not have voted for the death penalty.
Juror Wondered if Black People Have Souls
Tharpe’s attorney sought, and secured, an affidavit from Gattie who openly stated under oath: “… there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers.” He then stated that because Tharpe was not good black folk, he “should get the electric chair for what he did.” He added that “some of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason …” His reason for voting for the death penalty, he said, was because “after studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”
Systemic Racism in Jury Verdicts
Normally a jury verdict is etched in stone; it cannot be impeached because of conduct by individual jurors. Last year, however, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled in a Colorado child sexual assault case that racism in jury deliberations is “a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice. The high court added “a constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed … is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.”
SCOTUS Intervenes After Courts in Georgia Fail
Last September the State of Georgia was about to execute Tharpe by lethal injection when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened to hear arguments about Gattie’s racism in the jury’s decision to hand down a death penalty verdict.
What is particularly disturbing about the Tharpe case is that the Georgia trial court, the Georgia Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court, and a three-member panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals all ruled that Tharpe had not “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” They collectively concluded that Tharpe had failed to show that Gattie’s racism “had [a] substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”
These legal/constitutional conclusions are absurd. Reasonable minds can question whether Gattie’s racism had an “injurious effect” on other jurors’ decision-making but there can be little doubt, based on his own uncontested words, that he voted for the death penalty solely because of his warped and racists prejudices.
Supreme Court Remands Case for Hearing
While the Supreme Court did not vacate Tharpe’s death sentence, the court did remand the case on January 8, 2018 back to the Eleventh Circuit with this instruction: “[Because of] the unusual facts of this case, the Court of Appeals’ review should not have rested on the ground that it was indisputable among reasonable jurists that Gattie’s service on the jury did not prejudice Tharpe.”
We sincerely hope that the Eleventh Circuit, with a second look at the case, will vacate the death sentence imposed on Keith Tharpe because of Gattie’s blatant racism. That four other courts concluded otherwise is terribly disturbing.
The one ironclad rule that should always be applied to jury verdicts: no guilty verdict should be allowed to stand, under any circumstances, when it is based in whole or part on racism.