Supreme Court Reverses 11th Circuit; Death Row Inmate May Be Entitled to Hearing RE: Racist Juror

Tharpe v. Sellers (No. 17–6075)

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any “clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him.” The Eleventh Circuit denied his application for appeal after deciding that jurists of reason could not dispute that the District Court’s procedural ruling was correct.

The Supreme Court reaches a different conclusion after its review of the record. The Court notes that the state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race. However, the Supreme Court notes that the record contains a hair-raising affidavit signed by Gattie which includes a variety of patently racist opinions, including Gattie’s opinion that “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.” The Supreme Court notes that Gattie’s remarkable affidavit—which he never retracted— “presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.”

The Supreme Court concludes that based on the unusual facts of this case, the Court of Appeals was incorrect to conclude that it is indisputable among reasonable jurists that Gattie’s service on the jury did not prejudice Tharpe. The Court vacates the lower court’s decision and remands for further consideration. Although this won’t necessarily entitled Tharpe to an appeal or ultimately grant him a hearing regarding Gattie’s affidavit, after further proceedings below he may ultimately prevail and receive his day in court.

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