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Supreme Court rules appeal warranted in case of racist juror

When appellate attorneys for a Georgia man, Keith Tharpe, found evidence that one or more of his jurors had been racist, they hoped to show that racism affected the outcome of the trial. They tried to bring a habeas corpus petition to get the man's conviction or sentence overturned because the process that resulted in the man's conviction was unfair.

In order to get their appeal heard, they had to produce clear and convincing evidence that the racist juror's bias had infected the trial. The trial court said he had failed to do so, and a federal appellate court concluded that no reasonable jurist could conclude that the trial would have come out any differently without the racist juror.

The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that the appellate court was wrong to conclude that. The evidence of the juror's racism was compelling enough that yes, a reasonable judge could have concluded it had affected the trial outcome. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had erred in saying there was no rational dispute. The high court has ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider.

Affidavit: Some jurors voted for death penalty to send a message about black-on-black crime

The case involved a shocking crime. The Georgia man was convicted of the 1990 murder of his sister-in-law and the kidnapping and rape of his own estranged wife. The jury sentenced him to death.

After the trial, appellate attorneys interviewed one of the jurors, who signed an affidavit that made some racist statements:

  • "There are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers."
  • 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."
  • "After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls."

There were disputes about how seriously to take the man's affidavit and whether he said anything indicating he voted for conviction and death out of racial animus. Overall, however, the majority of the Supreme Court said that the existence of disputes does not mean no reasonable person could conclude that racism had an impact on the outcome of the case. It means that those disputes must be resolved and the issue 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," the majority said. "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."

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