Do Black People Even Have Souls?

Keith Tharpe is scheduled to be executed on September 26th in Georgia.

His conviction and death sentence are marred by racism.

During jury selection, a now-deceased juror named Barney Gattie swore he had “no preconceived notions about the case.” Unfortunately, Mr. Gattie had very definite notions about black people.

Mr. Gattie’s racist beliefs came to light after trial. When Tharpe’s attorneys went to talk with him about the verdict, Mr. Gattie gave a sworn statement in which he outlined his thoughts about black people.

According to Mr. Gattie, there are two kinds of black people: “black folks” and “ni**ers.” Mr. Gattie explained that the victim’s family were in the “black folks” category,” adding “[i]f they had been the type [of black person] that Tharpe is … then picking between life or death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered so much. My feeling is, what would be the difference?... I felt Tharpe, who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair.”

Mr. Gattie later mused: “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”

Let’s dissect that for just a minute. A juror in a capital case proclaimed 1) the only lives that mattered were the “good” black people (as defined by him); 2) that the death penalty would not have mattered if the victim had been a black person in the “ni**er” category (as defined by him); 3) that the defendant was a black person in the “ni**er” category who therefore deserved the electric chair and 4) that unlike other people who presumably have souls,black people by virtue of their skin color may be soulless, a quality that is surely problematic when described by a person who purports to study the Bible.

Although Mr. Gattie later backed away from his statements and claimed he was drunk when he made them, the fact that he was on the jury and may have based even part of his punishment decision on race surely undermines the fairness of the proceedings. Importantly, no court has ever held a hearing to determine whether Mr. Gattie’s racist views impacted the jury deliberation process or verdict. This means, of course, that racism could well have tainted the sentence.

In a capital case, the jury decides whether a defendant should receive the ultimate punishment of death. They are supposed to make that life-and-death decision by thinking about a whole host of factors relating to the crime and to the defendant. Race is not one of those factors. Indeed, race cannot be a factor.

We know that race is an insidious thing. It seems patently unfair that Mr. Tharpe could be executed based on a verdict by at least one juror who held such blatant contempt for black people in general, and who believed Mr. Tharpe should get the death penalty, in part, because he was a “ni**er”.

Mr. Gattie’s racist beliefs cast a large shadow over the reliability of Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence. Georgia, which itself has been challenged time and again for its racist application of the death penalty, should stop Mr. Tharpe’s execution. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the use of race as a factor for choosing death, ruling that “[s]ome toxins [such as racism] can be deadly in small doses.” Unless his execution is stayed, Mr. Tharpe may become another example of just how deadly racism can be.

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