The U.S. Supreme Court, in what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls “a stunning turn of events,” granted a stay of execution Tuesday night to Georgia killer Keith Tharpe, three and a half hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. In a 6-3 decision, the justices were apparently concerned about claims that one of Tharpe’s jurors was racist and sentenced Tharpe to death because he is African American. Chief Justice John Roberts agreed to grant the stay along with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.
The high court will now decide whether to hear Tharpe’s appeal. Kristina Roth of Amnesty International USA said the case “is a chilling example of how callous the state can be in matters of life and death.” Tharpe’s lawyers are appealing both state and federal court rulings that rejected claims that a racist juror voted for a death sentence because Tharpe is African American, and that Tharpe is ineligible to be executed because he is intellectually disabled. Tuesday afternoon, the Georgia Supreme Court, in its own 6-3 ruling, declined to hear Tharpe’s appeals, explaining that other courts had already ruled against him on those issues and that his new claims were barred on procedural grounds. On Monday, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles turned down pleas from Tharpe and about 20 friends and relatives to spare his life. They insisted the 59-year-old is not the same man who murdered his sister-in-law, Jacquelyn Freeman, 27 years ago.