Ensuring justice is color-blind a concern

It may be impossible to devise a foolproof safeguard against bias on the part of jurors in criminal trials. This week, Keith Tharpe reminded us why we need to keep trying.

Tharpe, 61, died this week in a Georgia prison — still under a death sentence dating back to 1991.

He was convicted of murdering his sister-in-law in 1990. From reports on the case, it appears prosecutors had plenty of evidence.

But after his conviction and sentencing, his attorneys filed appeals. They cited bias by one juror.

After years of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court for reconsideration. Then, after that court upheld the death sentence, the nation’s highest court refused last March to take the matter up again. That appeared to clear the way for Tharpe to be executed, but this week, he died of natural causes.

What is particularly striking — and deeply disturbing — about his case is what his attorneys learned about one juror, many years ago. That man, who also has died since, told Tharpe’s attorneys their client “wasn’t in the ‘good black folks’ category in my book ..” He added that studying the Bible led him to wonder “if black people even have souls.”

Take a moment to catch your breath. Yes, that interview occurred many years ago — but still, in the late 20th century.

How is it possible for any rational, moderately intelligent human being to make such a comment?

The law can be a strange thing. So it is not especially surprising that last March, when the high court decided against reconsidering Tharpe’s case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that a rehearing indeed was inappropriate — but that she was “profoundly troubled by the underlying facts of this case.”

Indeed. Clearly, ensuring that justice is color-blind is an ongoing concern.

By Kerry Minor

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