Tharpe v. Sellers,
583 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. The district court denied the motion as procedurally defaulted in state court. The Eleventh Circuit denied a certificate of appealability application based on its conclusion, rooted in the state court’s fact-finding, that Tharpe had not established prejudice. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. While the state court’s prejudice determination is binding on federal courts absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.” Gattie’s "remarkable" affidavit presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict. "At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong.”

  • Dissent (Clarence Thomas)  | 
  • Per Curiam

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

KEITH THARPE v. ERIC SELLERS, WARDEN

on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 17–6075. Decided January 8, 2018

Per Curiam.

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 60(b)(6). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him. See Tharpe v. Warden, No. 5:10–cv–433 (MD Ga., Sept. 5, 2017), App. B to Pet. for Cert. 19.

Tharpe sought a certificate of appealability (COA). The Eleventh Circuit denied his COA application after deciding that jurists of reason could not dispute that the District Court’s procedural ruling was correct. See Tharpe v. Warden, 2017 WL 4250413, *3 (Sept. 21, 2017). The Eleventh Circuit’s decision, as we read it, was based solely on its conclusion, rooted in the state court’s factfinding, that Tharpe had failed to show prejudice in connection with his procedurally defaulted claim, i.e., that Tharpe had “failed to demonstrate that Barney Gattie’s behavior ‘had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.’ ” Ibid. (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U. S. 619, 637 (1993) ).

Our review of the record compels a different conclusion. The state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race. See Tharpe v. Warden, No. 93–cv–144 (Super. Ct. Butts Cty., Ga., Dec. 1, 2008), App. F to Pet. for Cert. 102. And that factual determination is binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See 28 U. S. C. §2254(e)(1). Here, however, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.” App. B to Pet. for Cert. 15–16 (internal quotation marks omitted). Gattie’s remarkable affidavit—which he never retracted—presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict. At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong. The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.

The question of prejudice—the ground on which the Eleventh Circuit chose to dispose of Tharpe’s application—is not the only question relevant to the broader inquiry whether Tharpe should receive a COA. The District Court denied Tharpe’s Rule 60(b) motion on several grounds not addressed by the Eleventh Circuit. We express no view of those issues here. In light of the standard for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(6), which is available only in “ ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ ” Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U. S. 524, 536 (2005) , Tharpe faces a high bar in showing that jurists of reason could disagree whether the District Court abused its discretion in denying his motion. It may be that, at the end of the day, Tharpe should not receive a COA. And review of the denial of a COA is certainly not limited to grounds expressly addressed by the court whose decision is under review. But on the unusual facts of this case, the Court of Appeals’ review should not have rested on the ground that it was indisputable among reasonable jurists that Gattie’s service on the jury did not prejudice Tharpe.

We therefore grant Tharpe’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis, grant the petition for certiorari, vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand the case for further consideration of the question whether Tharpe is entitled to a COA.

It is so ordered.

Primary Holding

Supreme Court vacates the Eleventh Circuit's denial of a certificate of appealability in a case where the defendant presented evidence that a juror's racial prejudice affected the juror's vote for the death penalty.

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