There is no toxin more pernicious than hatred based on racial stereotypes. Despite progress in overcoming the sin of racism in recent years, racism still exists in American society—causing pain and hurt, and even leading to death. As a case in point, Keith Tharpe sits on death row in Jackson, Georgia, convicted of a gruesome murder 28 years ago. While we cannot speak to the legal issues of this case, it is apparent that racism may have played a part in Tharpe’s death sentence. After the trial, one of the jurors displayed shocking racial prejudice in an affidavit, liberally using racial slurs as he “wondered if black people even have souls.”
Lower courts have been unwilling to reconsider the verdict, but the case is now before the United States Supreme Court, which could grant a writ of certiorari to consider the merits of Tharpe’s contention of racial bias. The failure to thoroughly consider the effect of racism in jury deliberations could lead to Tharpe’s execution. We therefore join with many others in asking the Supreme Court to consider this case and the effects of an admittedly racist juror.
Progress against racism in society cannot obscure the fundamental problems with our system of justice if racism infests the application of criminal laws. The Catholic bishops of the United States recently issued a pastoral letter against racism titled “Open Wide Our Hearts—The Enduring Call to Love,” which acknowledged the history of racism in the United States and reaffirmed our commitment to its eradication. We believe that part of our work as religious leaders is to challenge racism by reminding the public that we are all brothers and sisters, equally made in the image of God. As we noted in our letter, racism is a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of all people.
Whenever personal prejudices surface in a trial, society relies on appellate courts and especially the Supreme Court to rectify these biases. We thus exhort the Supreme Court to take up Tharpe’s case and correct the clear, documented racism in the case by granting him a new sentencing hearing.
As bishops, we take very seriously Jesus’s call to visit those in prison. 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.
It’s not just the stain of racism that leads us to oppose Tharpe’s execution. The Catholic Church teaches that in the light of the Gospel, “the death penalty is inadmissible,” a teaching that has been reinforced most recently by Pope Francis. Indeed, the death penalty violates human dignity even if the convicted individual has committed a terrible crime.
Jesus called his followers to console those who mourn. While seeking consideration and mercy for Tharpe, we also pray for the family of Jacquelyn Freeman, who died at Tharpe’s hand.
In our pastoral letter, we explain that racism comes in many forms—and one of them is the sin of omission. 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. 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. To do nothing would be tragic not only for Tharpe, but for our collective dignity.
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