The Supreme Court sent the case of a black death row inmate who was convicted, in part, by a juror who used a racial slur to describe him, back to the lower courts Monday, after finding that prior decisions to not allow for an appeal based on the issue were in error.
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Keith Tharpe was convicted of murder in 1991 and sentenced to the death penalty after allegedly raping his estranged wife and killing his sister-in-law the year prior. Attorneys for Tharpe argued that a member of the jury, Barney Gattie, was influenced by Tharpe's race and that he used the n-word in reference to Tharpe.
"[T]here are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N------," reads the opinion, quoting the affidavit, which continued by noting that Gattie felt Tharpe "wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category" and "should get the electric chair for what he did."
"[A]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls," said Gattie in the affidavit. The juror later denied he swore to the report claimed he was intoxicated when he signed it.
The justices described the affidavit Monday as "remarkable" and note it was never retracted. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals previously decided against Tharpe's motion for relief "on the ground that it was indisputable among reasonable jurists that Gattie's service on the jury did not prejudice Tharpe," which the Supreme Court disagreed with, based "on the unusual facts of this case," and sent the court back to lower courts.
Referring first to procedural limitations and the prior failure by Tharpe to definitively prove Gattie's bias, Thomas writes that the Supreme Court's majority misread the 11th Circuit's decision and that in additional affidavit, Gattie said that race was not the deciding factor in his imposition of the death sentence.
"Gattie’s testimony was consistent with the testimony of the other ten jurors deposed in front of the trial court, each of whom testified that they did not consider race and that race was not discussed during their deliberations," reads the dissenting opinion.
Thomas noted that "The Court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that [first] affidavit, and must want to do something about it," characterizing the per curiam decision as "ceremonial handwringing" and referring to the delay of justice for the victim of the crime, who was murdered 27 years ago.
In additional news from the court Monday, the justices allowed a ruling by a federal appeals court on a Mississippi religious freedom law to remain in place, after the appeals court judged that those who brought suit did not prove they were harmed by the law.
Future challenges to the law, which would allow for marriage licenses to be denied by clerks who voice personal religious objections, are expected.