Death Row Inmate Keith Tharpe Died in Prison Before Execution. Here's Why His Story Leaves Me Conflicted

Illustration for article titled Death Row Inmate Keith Tharpe Died in Prison Before Execution. Here's Why His Story Leaves Me Conflicted
Photo: Georgia Department of Corrections

The curious case of Keith Tharpe, a story that spans nearly three decades, has finally come to its end; although, not the way many expected.


Tharpe—whose saga has been followed by The Root’s own Michael Harriot since he was first set to be executed back in September 2017—was a convicted murderer and death row inmate who died, sans execution, on Friday, according to a statement from his attorneys.

(Butts County, Georgia) Keith (Bo) Tharpe, a prisoner on Georgia’s death row, died at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison on Friday night. It is likely that Mr. Tharpe’s death was due to complications from cancer. In 1991, Mr. Tharpe was sentenced to death for murdering the sister of his estranged wife following a trial that took place three months after the crime.

The story of Keith “Bo” Tharpe has always left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, Tharpe was most certainly guilty of the violent crimes he was convicted of. On the other hand, the circumstances under which he was convicted and sentenced to die were irresponsible and dubious at best, and unjust and downright racist at worst.

Let’s start with his guilt. From the Office of the Attorney General:

Tharpe’s Crime (September 25, 1990)

The Georgia Supreme Court summarized the facts of the case as follows:

Tharpe’s wife left him on August 28, 1990 and moved in with her mother. Following various threats of violence made by the defendant to and about his wife and her family, a peace warrant was taken out against him, and the defendant was ordered not to have any contact with his wife or her family. Notwithstanding this order, Tharpe called his wife on September 24, 1990 and argued with her, saying if she wanted to “play dirty,” he would show her “what dirty was.”

On the morning of the 25th, his wife and her sister-in-law met Tharpe as they drove to work. He used his vehicle to block theirs and force them to stop. He got out of his vehicle, armed with a shotgun and apparently under the influence of drugs, and ordered them out of their vehicle. He then took his sister-in-law to the rear of his vehicle, where he shot her. He rolled her into a ditch, reloaded, and shot her again, killing her.

Tharpe then drove away with his wife. After unsuccessfully trying to rent a motel room, Tharpe parked by the side of the road and raped his wife. Afterward, he drove to Macon, where his wife was to obtain money from her credit union. Instead she called the police.

Tharpe was convicted in 1991 in Jones County of malice murder and two counts of kidnapping with bodily injury. Even in their statement, his lawyers imply that he was, indeed, guilty.

According to his lawyers, following the U.S. Supreme Court stay of his scheduled 2017 execution, Mr. Tharpe spent his additional two years of life productively. He was deeply remorseful for his crime and spent the end of his life strengthening his bonds with family and friends, and deepening his Christian faith. His spiritual advisor, Pastor Buddy Pittard, stated that “Keith Tharpe, was our friend and brother in Christ. We visited him weekly for almost five years and in that time we found him not only repentant and dedicated to Jesus Christ but a great human being as well. He would want his heartfelt apologies known to the family of Jackie Freeman and those he caused so much pain and to tell the world that there is hope for everyone In Jesus Christ.”


So yeah, he did it. And all the “Christian” remorse in the world won’t cause me to lose much sleep over the execution of a murderer and rapist.

Yet, there is still conflict, not so much having to do with Tharpe himself, but the manner in which he was convicted.


In Georgia, an impartial jury must unanimously vote for capital punishment in order for a person to receive the death penalty. Tharpe didn’t get an impartial jury. He got at least one demonstrably racist juror who never should’ve made it past jury selection and whose clear prejudice certainly should have been considered in the appeal.

But Barney Gattie, the racist juror in question, was allowed to participate in convicting and sentencing to death a black defendant.


Here are just a few of the things Gattie said while being interviewed by Tharpe’s lawyers as they were seeking appeal, according to Time:

  • There is a difference between “good black folks” like the victims Tharpe murdered and “niggers.”
  • He owned a store and routinely kicked “niggers” out of his store.
  • He voted for the death penalty because he thinks Tharpe is a “nigger.”
  • If Nicole Brown Simpson hadn’t married a “nigger” (O.J. Simpson), she would still be alive.
  • He often “wondered if black people even have souls.”

Gattie has denied making these statements, but, after this interview, he had looked over the lawyers’ notes and initialed them, confirming them to be accurate. I see no reason to believe this isn’t exactly the person Gattie is.


The other issue in Tharpe’s conviction surrounds whether or not he should’ve been deemed competent to stand trial.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled the execution of the intellectually disabled to be unconstitutional. Tharpe certainly should have qualified as intellectually disabled. According to his lawyers, Tharpe had an IQ of 74, which is below the legal threshold for a person to understand the charges or their crime.


Tharpe also didn’t receive adequate legal representation. He couldn’t afford a decent attorney on his own and the representation he received has been described as “horrifyingly uninformed and unconcerned.” And this was allowed, in part, because Tharpe didn’t understand what was going on.

And therein lies my issue: These oversights were allowed to stand. That this trial ended in the just conviction of someone who was guilty of horrific crimes doesn’t change the fact that another defendant, especially a black defendant, who maybe is not guilty could just as easily be railroaded under the same circumstances. It’s not about Barney Gattie, it’s about the next bigoted juror who’s allowed to serve on the jury of a black defendant under the guise of an impartial peer. It’s not about Keith Tharpe, it’s about the next black defendant who is made to stand trial despite their inability to understand the charges against them.


Tharpe’s attorney’s used all this information in appeal and still, the 11th Circuit Court said that Gattie’s racial animus wasn’t enough to prove that he was biased in his vote to convict and Tharpe’s appeal was denied as they had been numerous times.

Tharpe would’ve been executed by lethal injection on Sept. 26, 2017, the original date set, if not for a last-minute stay of execution granted by the Supreme Court on the day his execution was scheduled.


Early last year, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous no-decision, declined to take up the prisoner’s last appeal, effectively sending him to his death. The justices, while not at all disputing the racial bias against Tharpe, decided that he had not met the procedural burdens necessary to reopen his case and freed Georgia to set a new execution date.

Suffice it to say, Tharpe never made it to the needle.


Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons


Sorely Vexed

Even in such clear-cut cases of guilt, the death penalty is the wrong answer.

(1) People are fallible. The court system makes many mistakes. These mistakes are bad enough when they cost years of someone’s freedom. So much worse when they cost their life.

(2) People are mean. When a violent crime is committed, particularly against vulnerable individuals, people get mad. And mad people want someone to pay. If the cops and DA have helpfully provided a person to be the focus of that anger, it’s very likely a jury will find a way to make that person pay.

(3) People are racist (and classest). If the accused is a member of a racial, ethnic, or economic group that is marginalized, it makes it much easier for a jury to draw on handy stereotypes in forming the belief that “they must have done it. Just look at them.” It also make it easy to ignore the particular circumstances of that person’s life when labelling them a criminal.

(4) People are stupid. Courtrooms are circuses, with lawyers acting out brutal murders, indulging in flights of colorful oratory, obscuring facts and hiding evidence. These tactics are aimed at manipulating the easily manipulated, replacing “the facts show he did it” with “who else coulda done it?” Also, see (2) above.

(5) The system is corrupt. DAs and judges are politicians. They do what is necessary to advance their careers, regardless of whether justice is served. Want to keep being DA? Better be tough on crime! Want to be reconfirmed to the bench next election? Better give out stiffer sentences! Beware catching a case in an election year.

(6) The death penalty is hypocritical. It’s saying, “your crime is so terrible that we’re going to kill you for it.” So cold-blooded murder is this terrible thing that is such an affront to society that the only fitting punishment is to...murder the perp in cold blood. Hmm. But isn’t cold-blooded murder supposed to be wrong? Guess it depends who does the murdering.

Even if you can handwave away all of the above, though, there’s one last item that should give any death penalty supporter pause.

(6) The State is not your friend. At best, the government is a variably-funded, semi-functional bureaucracy, riddled with politics and politicians, whose primary purpose is to perpetuate its own existence. And let’s not forget, it has shown little love for minorities or marginalized groups over the years. But even if the system was utterly perfect, would you really want to give it the power to kill you? Because once your government can kill you, they own you, no matter how “free” you think you are.