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U.S. Supreme Court sides with death row inmate over racist juror claim

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, U.S. on November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday paved the way for a black Georgia inmate to challenge his 1991 death sentence for killing his sister-in-law after he argued the case was tainted by a racist white juror who questioned whether black people have souls.

The justices, in a 6-3 unsigned decision, threw out a lower court's decision that had rejected his biased jury assertion. Keith Tharpe was found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury of 10 white people and two black people in Georgia's Jones County.

The ruling means the case will now return to lower courts and gives Tharpe a chance to avoid execution in the 1990 murder.

Tharpe had been scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection in a Georgia state prison on Sept. 26 but the Supreme Court granted his last-minute stay application so it could have more time to decide whether to hear his appeal.

Three of the court's conservatives, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from Monday's decision.

Thomas, the court's only black justice, is also from Georgia. He pointed out in his dissenting opinion that the court's decision will "delay justice" for the victim, Jaquelin Freeman, who was also black.

Tharpe, 59, kidnapped and raped his estranged wife, Migrisus Tharpe, and used a shotgun to kill Freeman, her sister, in September 1990, according to court records.

The allegations of racial bias stem from an interview with one of the jurors years later, not comments made during the trial.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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