U.S. Supreme Court sides with GA death row inmate, investigator and attorney speak

Keith Leroy Tharpe was convicted and sentenced to execution for the 1990 murder of his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Freeman/Evan Watson (WGXA)

JONES COUNTY, Ga. -- On Monday, Jan. 8 the United States Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision that Georgia death row inmate Keith Leroy Tharpe's appeal should be returned to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tharpe, who was convicted for the 1990 kidnapping and murder of his sister-in-law Jacqueline Freeman, was set to be executed in September 2017 for the crime.

However the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of execution the day that it was supposed to take place because of an appeal that claimed a juror's racial prejudice affected Tharpe's sentence.

An opinion of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court released on Monday, Jan. 8 includes the comments made by Barney Gattie, the juror in question, which state "that Tharpe, 'who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did'."

Gattie also stated that “'[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls'.”

The lower courts have previously ruled Gattie's behavior didn't have an effect on the sentence.

Tharpe's attorney Brian Kammer, who works for the Georgia Resource Center, a nonprofit law office that represents death sentence prisoners, said that he was pleased with the Supreme Court's decision and believes that Gattie's comments did influence Tharpe's sentencing.

"We were certainly happy to see that it was a strong signal in the Court," Kammer said.

Kammer said he believes that racial bias needs to be taken seriously and that his client's case deserves to be looked into.

"The Supreme Court is saying wait a minute, you've got to take this more seriously," he said.

Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court dissented, writing in his opinion that "In bending the rules here to show its concern for a black capital inmate, the Court must think it is showing its concern for racial justice. It is not."

Thomas also wrote that the decision "will only delay justice for Jacqueline Freeman, who was also black, who is ignored by the majority, and who was murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. I respectfully dissent."

Jones County Sheriff's Office investigator Earl Humphries worked as an investigator on the Tharpe case in 1990.

Humphries said, "I don't think that Mr. Tharpe, having sat in front of him and talked with him and seen the coldness in his eyes and as determined as he was, I don't think it should be commuted."

Humphries was with the Freeman family on the date scheduled for Tharpe's execution in September 2017 and said that they understood that another appeals process was possible. He said that the family has handled the situation with grace and that if Freeman was still alive, she would be proud of what her family has accomplished.

"As difficult as it is for investigators and law enforcement working on a case, it has to be doubly hard for them to have to go through this again and prolong it even further," said Humphries.

Humphries said he still believes that justice would mean an execution and that he wants to focus on the victim and a family that has grown up without a mother and sister.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off