He died quietly and almost unnoticed on Georgia death row on January 24, 2020.
Roughly one in four people sentenced to death will die of natural causes before they can be executed.
News accounts reported that Tharpe died from “complications of cancer.” His death gained national media notice only because his case raised serious questions about his death sentence being the byproduct of institutionalized racism.
Tharpe was convicted for the September 1990 murder of his sister-in-law and sentenced to death on January 10, 1991.
Like most death penalty cases, Tharpe’s case began a convoluted legal odyssey in the state and federal court systems to have his conviction and sentence reviewed for possible constitutional reversible errors.
These reviews can lead to men spending anywhere from 5 to 41 years on death row, like Raymond Riles who has spent 41 years on Texas’s death row. He will also die, more likely than not, just as Tharpe did in Georgia.
Seven years after Tharpe was sentenced to death, the Georgia Resource Center conducted interviews with his jurors as it does in all capital cases. These interviews discovered one juror, Barney Gattie, who “harbored very atrocious, racist views about black people”
In the wake of these revelations Gattie signed an affidavit in which he said, “In my experience I have observed that there are two types of black people: 1. Black folkts and 2. ‘N….ers.” He would later say that since he did not believe Tharpe fell into the “good black folks” category, he should be executed in the electric chair for the crime he committed.
The lower state and federal courts did not see much harm caused by Gattie’s racist views, and, therefore, repeatedly upheld his conviction and sentence.
Finally, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed an execution date set for Tharpe, saying he has presented a “strong factual basis” that he did not receive a fair and impartial jury verdict. The high court sent his case back to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for additional review.
Unimpressed, the 11th Circuit refused to hear the case, saying he had delayed too long in presenting the racial juror bias claim.
Last May the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, paving the way for Tharpe’s execution. Justice Sotomayor concurred with the court’s decision but issued a lame, sophomoric statement that she was “profoundly troubled” by the “truly striking evidence of juror bias” in the case, but she felt the execution should be carried out.
Put simply, it may be a tad troubling to execute a man whose death sentence was infected with juror bias, but it’s constitutionally okay to kill him anyway.
But Keith Tharpe escaped the State of Georgia’s final indignity. He died before the State could kill him. Perhaps prison officials knew he was dying and just let nature run its course.
It has been said that Keith Tharpe was a Christian—a “God-fearing” man, as Christians are commonly referred to. I do not accept that. A Christian is a “God-loving” person because Jesus Christ walked this earth, if for no other reason, than to teach love, not fear; that God’s children should love, not fear, Him.
Whatever passageway, if any, that opens on the other side of death, it should not be feared, rather embraced as a new journey in a different life form.
The people who knew, and loved Keith Tharpe, can sleep well knowing he is now beyond the suffering caged life inflicts.