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Upcoming Execution Of Keith Leroy Tharpe Illustrates Legacy Of Lynching In US

UPDATE: The Supreme Court has issued a temporary stay of execution for Tharpe while they consider whether to hear his appeal:

Keith Leroy Tharpe is scheduled for execution on September 26 for shooting Jaquelin Freeman, the sister-in-law of his estranged wife. Earlier this month, Tharpe’s legal defense team sought to have his execution halted under the claim of strong racial bias by a white juror, Barney Gattie.

United States District Court Judge Ashley Royal rejected the claims of racial bias, stating “there is absolutely no indication that Gattie, or anyone else, brought up race during the jury deliberations.” However, details of racism, which led to Tharpe’s sentencing, make it clear Georgia has a lynching scheduled on its books.

Tharpe is set to be the second person Georgia has executed in 2017. He has sat on death row since 1990 after committing horrible crimes against his estranged wife and sister-in-law, including the murder of his sister-in-law, in retaliation for his wife leaving him.

On the morning of September 25, 1990, Tharpe disobeyed court orders to stay away from his wife and committed the ruthless murder. Just 100 days later his capital trial started— an uncommonly short amount of time —and he was unanimously sentenced to death by a jury.

The ever-present racial disparities within the death penalty become hyper-visible in Tharpe’s case. During the appeals process, Tharpe’s legal defense team interviewed jurors from the trial, and court filings from the interviews reveal that Gattie, who is now deceased, stated he voted for Tharpe’s death because he was black.

“After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls,” Gattie said.

“Integration started in Genesis,” Gattie also said. “I think they were wrong. For example, look at O.J. Simpson. That white woman wouldn’t have been killed if she hadn’t have married that black man.”

Earlier in his statements, Gattie told attorneys, “In my experience I have observed that there are two types of black people: black folks and niggers.” He lambasted Tharpe as an “example” for other Black people to see and fear.

“As it was, because I knew the victim and her husband’s family and knew them all to be good black folks, I felt Tharpe, who wasn’t in the “good” black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair […] Some of the jurors voted for death because they felt that Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks […] The others wanted blacks to know they weren’t going to get away with killing each other.”

In light of the clear racial bias in these comments, Tharpe’s lawyers have tried to have attempted to have this execution halted.

Legacy Of Lynching

A fundamental disregard for black life is exposed in Gattie’s open questioning of black people’s souls. As I once heard activist, writer, and professor Angela Y. Davis say during her guest lecture at Kennesaw State University, the death penalty’s roots are “sunk deep into the legacy of lynching,” with legalized killings of mostly black and Latino people becoming spectacles that exist to send chilling messages to our community.

Gattie’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric that often leads to lynchings; a complete questioning of the humanity of black people and the need to make Tharpe’s death an “example” to “other Blacks.” He even manages to use the O.J. Simpson trial as a means to interject the sanctity of a white woman into the case. (Note: Most lynchings occurred due to rumors or myths of black men raping or inappropriately looking at white women.)

The Death Penalty Information Center shows black people are disproportionately represented on death row compared to their population. They found the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for Black people in some places.

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at George Washington University, wrote in a 2014 New York Times article that “application of the death penalty remains so unequal that it offends both the U.S. Constitution and international human rights law.”

In Washington state, for example, black defendants were three times as likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants with similar cases. Moreover, in 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both.

Despite being the minority race in the U.S., black and Latino people comprised over half of those sentenced to death, as well as those waiting on death row. The ACLU reports that people of color have accounted for 43% of total executions since 1976 and 55% of those currently awaiting execution.

In North Carolina, studies found that chances of receiving a death penalty rose 3.5 times among defendants whose victims were white.

Class Warfare Against The Poor

As of April 2017, there are 2,843 inmates on death row. Writer, former Black Panther, and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal spent over 30 years on death row. Speaking on the socio-economic conditions of those who receive the death penalty, Abu-Jamal stated that death row is “a web that catches only the poor. Race and poverty are excellent predictors of who ends up on death row.” Abu-Jamal asks, how often have you heard of someone from a wealth background sentenced to death for a crime?

The Seattle Journal For Social Justice described the death penalty as “class warfare” against the poor, noting that those sentenced typically do not have the financial ability to hire legal representation with the skill and resources to get their death sentence dropped. Roughly 95 percent of all people on death row are poor, and in this regard capital punishment disproportionately targets the poor and working class, which uncoincidentally is often majority black and Latino areas.

Moreover, a death sentence normally means several decades on death row, typically in solitary confinement, as the average incarcerated person on death row has spent roughly 13 years there. Most death sentences turn into protracted legal battles, which can cost thousands for both the defendant and the state and typically result in a death row populated with old sick inmates wasting away.

The state of California reinstated the death penalty in 1977 and less than 15 people have been executed since, despite 744 incarcerated people on death row.

As Liliana Segura reported for the Intercept, “More than 100 have died facing execution — a quarter of these prisoners have committed suicide, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).”

Thus, the death penalty exists to instill fear through protracted torture in the form of decades-long solitary confinement and imprisonment.

Calling For Abolition

The idea of abolishing capital punishment and clearing death row should not seem far out of reach nor idealistic. According to Amnesty International, there are 139 countries that have abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

In the United States, the Supreme Court suspended death penalty sentencing for four years in 1972, referring to it as cruel and unusual punishment and an abuse to human rights. Since then, it has been reinstated in 31 states, but remains outlawed in 19.

If one can imagine a world without the death penalty, as several countries already have and as the U.S. once did, the abolition of the death penalty becomes immensely possible.

Angela Davis reminds us in her groundbreaking book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?”, that one must be careful not to allow the movement against capital punishment to epistemologically (or materially) reinforce the dominance of mass incarceration or society’s reliance on prisons. The cure to the death penalty is not more prison sentences but rather a cohesive movement, which intersects with the prison abolitionist movement, seeking to address systemic issues of poverty, racism, as well as forms of patriarchy that perpetuate the roots of most violent crime.

The very logic of the death penalty is backwards: that the state killing people who kill people will show people not to kill people.

As Tharpe’s September 26th execution date nears, let it be a loud reminder of the urgency with which movements must create alternatives to the United States government’s carceral state.

Devyn Springer

Devyn Springer