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.