Three U.S. bishops have called on the Supreme Court to take up the case of a death row inmate in Georgia whose sentence may have been prejudiced by the racism of a juror.
“There is no toxin more pernicious than hatred based on racial stereotypes,” the bishops warned in a Feb. 17 opinion piece in The Atlantic.
They said that despite some progress in overcoming racism, it still exists in America today.
“Whenever personal prejudices surface in a trial, society relies on appellate courts and especially the Supreme Court to rectify these biases.”
The opinion piece in The Atlantic was written by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
The bishops pointed to the case of Keith Tharpe, who was convicted in 1990 of two counts of kidnapping and the murder of his sister-in-law, Jacquelyn Freeman.
Tharpe was scheduled to be executed in September 2017. The Supreme Court intervened with a temporary stay of execution just hours before the inmate was set to be put to death. The Supreme Court ordered a federal appeals court in Atlanta to re-examine the claim that one juror’s racist views had prejudiced the case. In an affidavit after the trial, the juror had used racial slurs and said he “wondered if black people even have souls.”
The appeals court barred Tharpe’s appeal on procedural grounds and ruled that the Supreme Court’s 2017 opinion allowing courts to consider evidence of jurors’ racial prejudice could not be retroactively applied to Tharpe’s case.
Now, Tharpe has asked the Supreme Court to consider the merits of his case - to examine whether the inmate was unconstitutionally sentenced to death based on the racism of a juror. The Supreme Court has yet to announce whether it will take up the case.
Since there is clear evidence that racism may have played a part in Tharpe’s sentence, the bishops said, the Supreme Court should take up the case and “correct the clear, documented racism in the case by granting him a new sentencing hearing.”
Last November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter recognizing the stain of racism on the history of the United States and reaffirming the importance of fighting the sin of racism today.
The letter, entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts – The Enduring Call to Love,” stressed that racism is a failure to recognize human dignity.
“In our pastoral letter, we explain that racism comes in many forms—and one of them is the sin of omission,” the bishops said in the opinion piece for The Atlantic.
“This occurs when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered. To do justice requires an honest acknowledgment of our failures and the restoring of right relationships among us. That’s why we are speaking out about Tharpe’s case.”
Archbishop Gregory, Bishop Dewane, and Bishop Fabre offered prayers for Freeman – Tharpe’s victim – and her family.
They also noted that the Catechism teaches that the death penalty is as inadmissible violation of human dignity, even for those who have committed violent crimes.
“As bishops, we take very seriously Jesus’s call to visit those in prison,” they said. “We have visited prisoners, including those on death row. In most parishes with prisons or jails, a priest or deacon visits every week to offer religious services.”
“We have been blessed to witness true rehabilitation and meet prisoners who earnestly seek redemption through God’s grace.”
The bishops emphasized their duty as religious leader to insist that racism be challenged on the grounds that “we are all brothers and sisters, equally made in the image of God.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court must intervene in his case to ensure that fairness is protected and justice is defended—before it’s too late,” they said. “To do nothing would be tragic not only for Tharpe, but for our collective dignity.”