The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is where the execution chamber is located. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

Clemency denied for Georgia man sentenced to die

As the state Board of Pardons and Paroles turned down Keith Tharpe’s plea for mercy Monday, his lawyers continued to push in the courts to stop the 59-year-old’s execution Tuesday evening, arguing one of the jurors who convicted him was a racist.

Tharpe is scheduled to die Tuesday night by lethal injection unless the courts intervene. His clemency hearing fell on the 27th anniversary of the day he shot and killed his sister-in-law.

On Monday morning, 20 relatives, friends, religious counselors and attorneys urged the five-member board to spare Tharpe’s life. While the hearing was closed to the public, his supporters’ arguments where laid out in Tharpe’s clemency petition. In it, they said Tharpe was not the same violent man he had been when the killing took place. They described him as a man of God who deeply regretted killing Jacquelyn Freeman.

MORE: How lethal injection works

RELATED: William Sallie was the ninth man executed in 2016.

But in the afternoon, the board met with the Jones County district attorney, Stephen Bradley, and Freeman’s relatives. Bradley, the prosecutor in the eight-county Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit which includes Jones, said Freeman’s relatives, investigators and “others touched by the case” spoke before the board. Bradley said family members described how their “lives were shattered” when Freeman was killed.

The board reached its decision almost four hours after it finished its appointment with the prosecutor and Freeman’s family. It didn’t explain the reasons for the decision, as is the custom.

Tharpe still has appeals pending in the courts. One claim argues that he shouldn’t be executed because a juror, now deceased, used a racial slur in reference to Tharpe.

According to court filings and his clemency petition, Barney Gattie told Tharpe’s lawyers in 1998 that he believed there were “two kinds of black people.” He told them that if the victim had been in the same category as Tharpe, he would not have voted to punish Tharpe with death. But Freeman, Gattie said, came from a “good black family,” according to court filings.

While Georgia law says a jury’s verdict cannot be impeached, a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year said an exception would be if racism played a role. Tharpe’s lawyers pointed to that decision, stemming from a case out of Colorado, as a reason that his execution should be stopped until there is a full hearing on what Gattie said.

Tharpe’s lawyers are also arguing that he is not eligible for the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled with an IQ of around 70.

The Sept. 25, 1990 murder took place almost a month after Tharpe’s wife moved in with her mother to escape her violent husband. Tharpe threatened her during an angry telephone call. He told her if she wanted “play dirty,” he would show her “what dirty was,” according to court records and testimony. The next morning, driving a borrowed pickup truck, Tharpe intercepted his wife and her sister-in-law, blocking them on a Jones County road moments after they had begun their drive to work in Macon.

Tharpe dragged Freeman from the car and shot her three times, reloading his shotgun after each trigger pull. He left her in a ditch for her husband, an EMT, to discover moments later as he drove their children to school.

By the time Freeman was found, Tharpe had kidnapped his wife. He later allegedly sexually assaulted her in the pickup, parked beside a road. (He was not tried for that alleged assault on his wife which happened outside of Jones County.)

Tharpe went on trial three months later for kidnapping and murder and was convicted.

If he is put to death has scheduled, Tharpe will be the second murderer to die by lethal injection in Georgia this year. Last year, the state executed nine men, more than in any year since Georgia reinstated the death penalty almost 45 years ago.

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