A man has spent 26 years on death row. Will a juror’s alleged racial bias save his life?

Keith Leroy Tharpe
Keith Leroy Tharpe

Jones County jurors sentenced Keith Tharpe to death in 1991, a little more than three months after he was accused of killing his sister-in-law.

Twenty-six years later, Tharpe’s attorney is asking a federal judge to reopen his appellate case and consider evidence that a juror who served during the four-day trial may have voted to sentence Tharpe to death because of racial bias.

For years, Georgia law has barred jurors’ testimony from being used to overturn a verdict. Earlier this year, though, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the rule can’t be applied to exclude evidence showing that racial bias affected a verdict, according to a motion filed June 21 on Tharpe’s behalf.

In Tharpe’s case, according to the motion, a juror interviewed after the trial told attorneys that he believes black people can be divided into two categories — “good black folks” and “n-----s.”

Tharpe, who is black, was found guilty of fatally shooting Jacquelyn Freeman three times with a single-shot 12-gauge shotgun.

The juror told attorneys he thought of Freeman’s family as “nice black folks” and said if her family “had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life or death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered as much,” according to the motion.

Despite the juror’s later claims that he voted for the death penalty based only on the evidence, his views on race were tied to his decision, Tharpe’s attorney contends.

Now, in light of the high court’s recent ruling, Tharpe’s attorney, Brian Kammer, is asking a judge to take another look at Tharpe’s case.

“Death sentences cannot be based on racial bias on even the part of one juror,” Kammer said. “It really undermines the appearance of and reality of fairness in death sentencing.”

Lawyers representing Tharpe also have argued that the now 59-year-old didn’t get a fair trial, given the short period of time that passed between his arrest and conviction.

Kammer said Tharpe’s trial lawyers did little to investigate the case and acquiesced to a rushed process that wouldn’t be tolerated today.

All of Tharpe’s other appellate options have been exhausted. If a judge denies the request to reopen the appeal, Tharpe could face execution as early as this fall, Kammer said.

Georgia executed nine inmates in 2016. One execution has been carried out in 2017, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Amy Leigh Womack: 478-744-4398, @awomackmacon