Buddy Pittard believed every death row inmate deserved his fate. Then he met Keith Tharpe.

As a conservative Christian, Pittard thought his beliefs about capital punishment were unshakable. Tharpe, a death row inmate, proved him wrong.

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Buddy Pittard Jackson State prison capital punishment

Photograph by Audra Melton

AS HE DROVE DOWN I-75 TOWARD THE STATE PRISON NEAR JACKSON, Robert “Buddy” Pittard wondered again what he thought he was doing, exactly, and why. The literal answer was fairly simple: Something had called him to try to witness his Christian faith, itself fraught with doubts frequent enough to trouble him, to some of the prisoners. But in hopes of . . . what? Saving their souls? Well, yes, maybe, though that sounded a bit theatrical. He wasn’t Billy Graham. He was just a man from Snellville—Georgia, through and through—who, after selling a lucrative concrete business a few years earlier, had regularly wrestled his skepticism about Jesus to the ground and felt he could share his journey with others who’d failed to have a “white light” moment but longed for a spiritual awakening.

About one thing he did not feel conflicted: his view toward the felons with whom he would spread the Good News. To him, every death row inmate (the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, better known as Jackson state prison, is home to Georgia’s only execution chamber), every robber, every dope dealer, every gangbanger, every reprobate in every cell of that vast expanse of concrete looming up at the end of Prison Boulevard, just past Corrections Lake, deserved his fate. Pity? Empathy? In his mind, they deserved neither of those things. How that squared with the Gospel of Jesus Christ that he drew upon in teaching a Sunday school class—words very much filled with mercy and compassion—did not concern him.

“I had it in my brain that the problem was solved. All of those people should go to hell. [Saving them] wasn’t part of my job.”

Pittard had been forewarned that the prison would be intimidating, but nothing could have prepared him not only for what he saw but what he felt, a sort of malevolence that clocked his nostrils like ozone after a lightning strike. Miles of coiled concertina wire glinted in the sunlight. Overhead at every corner, he could make out the silhouettes of the guards manning the towers, some pacing, rifles at the ready. The forests of barbed wire reared in two great rows, with a path in between that allowed a car with an armed guard to cruise the perimeter 24 hours a day.

The entrance yawned in the center of a bunker. Once inside, Pittard was confronted with a TSA-style metal detection system. Shoes off. Belt off. Anything with the slightest bit of metal, off. Then came the sound—a low roar of shouting and screaming mingled with the concussive bang of heavy steel doors rumbling open and slamming shut. He was about to come face to face not with the abstractions that he’d imagined cruising down I-75 but the realities of men with faces and voices and stories and, as it would eventually become clear, humanity.

Keith “Bo” Tharpe
Keith “Bo” Tharpe

Photograph from document submitted to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles

In one of those cells, on Death Row, a man in his late fifties named Keith “Bo” Tharpe had long ago grown used to the prison’s conditions. They were his life as he and his neighboring inmates awaited execution. Pittard was not there to see Tharpe that day—he was to do Christian counseling with other prisoners in other cell blocks—and Tharpe initially heard nothing of any such visits, not from the prison’s chaplain, much less from prisoners who’d met some guy who taught Sunday school at a church an hour and a half away.

Tharpe did know Jesus, or at least claimed to, and expressed trust in Him to see him through whatever lay ahead. He had been reading the Bible faithfully for more than two decades, having decided a few years into his sentence to abandon his early rebelliousness that included doing contraband drugs and mouthing off at the guards. More importantly, he read it to try to find some peace from the daily torture of memory, the film on a spool in his head replaying what he remembered of the horrendous acts he committed.

There is no way to soft-pedal it, nothing that can be said to scrub the brutality. At the time of the crime, Tharpe’s only prior arrests were for driving violations, but those weren’t the worst of his offenses.

On August 28, 1990, Tharpe’s wife of 11 years, his high school sweetheart, left him after the man she knew had been swallowed by a drug addiction—and the one in his place had repeatedly threatened her with violence. Migrisus Tharpe took their four daughters (her husband had a fifth daughter from a previous relationship) and moved in with her mother northwest of Macon. She secured a restraining order against her husband, but on September 24, he called her anyway. If she wanted to “play dirty,” he told her, he would show her “what dirty was.”

The next morning, after an all-night crack and alcohol binge, Bo Tharpe stopped his pickup truck in the middle of the road leading to his mother-in-law’s house. Unaware of what was awaiting her, Migrisus hurried out of the house and into the car of her brother’s 29-year-old wife, Jackie Freeman, who was going to drop off Migrisus at work at the Medical Center of Central Georgia on the way to her own job at Physician’s Diagnostic Center. Freeman was running late and joked that if they happened to hit a deer on the way, they’d have to drag it all the way to Macon because there was no time to stop.

But the women were forced to stop after all, when they reached the stretch of Ellis Church Road where Bo Tharpe, armed with a shotgun and tweaking hard, blocked their path.

According to testimony (Tharpe would later recall some details differently), Tharpe ordered Freeman to get out of their car. When she refused, he waved the shotgun, saying he was going to “fuck you up.” When she continued to refuse, Tharpe pulled her out, took her to the rear of the vehicle, and shot her. He pushed her into a ditch on the side of the road, reloaded the weapon, and pumped two more shotgun blasts into her.

Tharpe drove away from the scene, taking his wife with him. Unable to rent a motel room, he allegedly raped her on the side of the road. She was able to call police when the couple stopped at her credit union, after she’d promised her husband she’d withdraw some cash.

Meanwhile, moments after the shooting, Freeman’s husband, a fireman and part-time EMT, was driving on Ellis Church Road to take his two children to school. He noticed something in a ditch and rushed from his truck to his wife’s side, frantically trying to find a pulse that wasn’t there. He ordered the children to get down in the back seat of the truck so they wouldn’t see her body.

Less than four months later, Tharpe was tried and convicted of Freeman’s murder and sentenced to death.

BUDDY PITTARD’S VIEWS ON THE DEATH PENALTY—as with most of his other political beliefs—had long been deeply conservative. I know this because he is my uncle. Like him, I was born in Atlanta but moved north at age 10.

As a boy, I worshipped Uncle Buddy and my other uncle, Pat Pittard, with the kind of adulation most any boy would feel for the kind of uncles they were (and are): funny, playful, generous. They were the life of the party, both of them. They were successful and lavished my sister and me with the coolest toys and gifts on our birthdays and Christmases.

We didn’t see, of course, the tension behind the laughter and good-ol’-boyness—the drinking, the jetting off to gamble in the Bahamas or Vegas while the wives stayed home, the late-night parties, and the all-day hangovers. Eventually, as 30 years old became 40, 40 became 50, the hollowness of the life Uncle Buddy was leading—to say nothing of the damage he was causing to his marriage and those who loved him—weighed on him enough that he quit drinking and started looking for spiritual answers. “I think my respect for women was born then,” he told me on a drive down to Macon one January morning. “Through most of my marriage, I was going out at night. If my wife wanted to go, that’s fine. If she didn’t, that’s fine. I hurt her a lot of times, but I thought I was treating her fairly.

“Then I started appreciating how important the family was and how important Christianity was,” he continued. “I got a chaplain for my business. I did things to help people. I began to change.”

He started attending church every Sunday and not just skimming the Bible but trying to understand it, especially the New Testament, attempting to tease apart the real meaning of some parables.

One that stumped him was a story Jesus told in Matthew. “It was about a landowner that hired workers to work in his vineyard,” he says. “He hired some guys in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some just an hour before quitting time.

“When it was over and he was paying everybody, he gave all the workers the same amount. Of course, the people who had worked all day complained and said, ‘Hey, this guy worked one hour, yet you paid him the same that you paid me. I worked 10 hours.’

“The landowner said, ‘It’s my vineyard. It’s my land. You agreed to the amount you were going to get paid. Are you just jealous of somebody else who, in your eyes, got more for less work? If that’s your thinking then you’re wrong.’

“When I first read that, I thought it just meant that a landowner can pay whatever he wants and you have to go along with it. But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all.”

Buddy Pittard Jackson State prison capital punishment
Buddy Pittard visits the childhood home of Keith “Bo” Tharpe.

Photograph by Audra Melton

SITTING ON THE TINY FRONT PORCH of Bo Tharpe’s childhood home in Macon, a weather-beaten clapboard slumped at the entrance to a cul-de-sac dotted with similarly faded houses, his brother-in-law, Bruce Pope, smiled when asked about Tharpe’s upbringing. In many ways, of course, it couldn’t have been more different than that of Buddy Pittard, who sat on the porch with me and Pope on a mild afternoon. As he talked, Pope gripped the top of a tall oxygen tank from which a plastic tube curls up and into Pope’s nostrils. “COPD,” he said. “From smoking.”

To begin with the obvious, Pittard is white, and while his father wasn’t near wealthy, he was able to provide for his family without struggle. Tharpe is black and, though his family wasn’t prosperous either, it benefited from a dairy farm owned by his grandfather. Tharpe’s father also worked for the post office, but his home was not a stable one.

Tharpe’s mother admitted in a court document that, while pregnant with him, she drank both moonshine and beer “excessively.” Tharpe’s father ran a “shot house” out of the home—a side hustle, yes, but also a social club where the men who lived in the neighborhood would gather in the backyard and drink and play checkers. The liquor was provided by Tharpe’s father, who recognized that his friends didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to pay for a full pint of liquor but would hand over a buck for a shot of whiskey or gin poured into Gerber Baby Food jars.

“You’d take that thing and fill it up twice and for two dollars that’s half a pint,” Pope said.

While the father poured, he had his son, Bo, hand out the jars. By the time he was five years old, Tharpe started taking sips of the alcohol. By age 10, he was drinking enough that he would sometimes pass out.

As he grew into his body, he would intimidate the men who didn’t pay their tabs. His nickname is derived from “elbow,” because when he played football, he was known for elbowing the other players.

His childhood wasn’t all chaos. “We’d play ball out here all the time,” Pope said, his eyes roaming over a swath of lawn dappled with brown patches. “I was dating his sister, and they’d come here and we’d take Bo to the bowling alley.” On Sundays, Bo’s grandmother took him to church.

Tharpe’s fondest memory was of catching catfish and blue gill in a pond near his home. He and a friend would sneak onto the property, a rolling, pine needle–carpeted expanse on which stood a small house, the two boys weaving their way through a path worn into the surrounding woods. “I think my momma and my grandmama raised me pretty good ’til I was 15,” Tharpe wrote many years later. “Then I [became] too headstrong. All my life I was the little kid that had to be tough. When they started calling me Bo in high school, I got tougher and tougher.”

“All I can say is I’m sorry for my whole life.”

By the time Tharpe was in his late 20s, the crack epidemic had begun to ravage his neighborhood. Or, as one of his childhood friends would say: “When crack hit Macon, it was like a bomb blast.” Another friend recalled, in a letter for Tharpe’s lawyers, that “me and Bo made the mistake of trying crack, not knowing how it would affect us. We had only ever smoked weed before that and we thought we could handle it, but we were ignorant of what crack could do.”

That same friend also wrote: “I witnessed how loving Bo was to his wife and daughters. I wasn’t always the best father when my kids were growing up, but I remember Bo being a good dad and being there for his kids.”

“Drugs really hit Keith hard,” his aunt wrote, also for his lawyers. “He kept it away from his family as much as he could, but we live in a small community and we all knew he was using and it changed him. He loved his wife and he loved his kids, but once he got hung up on that stuff, it was all that mattered.”

His life spiraled into the hell of a junkie chasing the next high “until I was totally crazy,” he wrote. “Liquor and weed didn’t make me crazy, but cocaine did.” It was not a matter of enjoyment; he was seeking a high he could never reach. “You know the one thing you don’t hear in a crack house?” he would later say. “Laughter.”

By the time he made his way toward his mother-in-law’s house that September morning almost 30 years ago, high, erratic, and desperate, he had lost it all, including, as he later put it, his concept of reality.

To this day, he wrote, “I just can’t figure out why I hurt her. . . . I never had anything against Jackie. I just don’t know why I would do such a thing. I don’t remember everything. I must have been crazy.

“All I can say is I’m sorry for my whole life.”

ONCE PITTARD STOPPED drinking, he set off on a spiritual quest. “I studied the Koran—well, not word for word, but in its summation form. And Buddha and Confucius, all these things. For some reason, Christianity seemed to be more real for me.”

His faith was all but cemented, he says, on a trip to Israel, where he was baptized in the Jordan River. But deep down, he still struggled with some doubts—not so much about Jesus as the Son of God but about specific Bible stories and their seemingly impossible events. He attended church regularly. He took over the Sunday school class. In 2016, he felt an odd pull to tell his story to prisoners. He secured permission through the prison chaplain and started paying visits.

Before his first visit to Jackson, prison officials briefed him on what he might face upon meeting the men held there. “I was told that one of them might spit on you or urinate on you, or what’s called ‘spraying.’ They set a cup up on their bars, and then when you walk by, they hit it with a newspaper or something and spray you with whatever liquid material they may have available in the cell.” He was also warned that prisoners “may grab you and pull you towards the bars.”

He was nervous on those first visits, but nothing like that ever happened to him. The first prisoner he met was a gang leader. “He was maybe 21. Just a beautiful young man, very sharp, kept his cell sharp.” He was in isolation, he told Pittard, “so I cannot make contact with anybody else. They’re afraid that I will tell somebody to kill somebody.”

“And I said, ‘Well, how about Jesus?’” Pittard recalls. “‘Is Jesus able to help you in this isolated situation that you’re in?’ And he says, ‘Oh, yes. But I’m not sure I believe in him enough for him to help me.’”

The discussions Pittard had with the incarcerated men would start like that. “Before I knew it,” Pittard says, “I was leaning on the bars and touching the man’s hand when I said a prayer with him.”

As the months passed, Pittard says he found himself staring at the ceiling at night, unable to sleep, thinking. All his life he had viewed convicts, felons, prisoners—to the extent he ever thought of them—as something less than human, as evil, irredeemable, faceless.

“I had it in my brain that the problem was solved,” Pittard says. “All of those people should go to hell. [Saving them] wasn’t part of my job. I never came in contact with them. They’re not part of my life, and I’m never going to let [crime] be part of my life.”

Again and again, he asked himself: “What in the hell have you gotten yourself into? What are you doing down here? You’re not even a great Christian.” But through the prisoners—and Tharpe in particular—he would become one.

WORD ABOUT PITTARD’S WORK began to spread at Jackson—all the way to the most sequestered of prisoners. One day, about six months after Pittard’s first visit, the prison chaplain said there was a man on Death Row who wanted some Christian counseling.

It was the first request Pittard received from Death Row, and he was skeptical. Tharpe, by that time, had exhausted most of his appeals but was still hoping for a reduction of his sentence. Jailhouse conversions for reasons of convenience are legion, of course. Pittard was not naive to that. He’d seen enough men snoozing in chapel, who were there simply to enjoy a few minutes out of their cell, to know that piety was often professed out of expediency.

Pittard and Tharpe first met in early November 2016. The encounter occurred not through glass or over phones but across the table in a day room with other prisoners huddled with lawyers or family. Both men were wary. Each took the other’s measure.

“When Bo first came up the hall, I was a little surprised at him and his demeanor, his relaxed attitude,” Pittard says. “He was so friendly to everyone he saw. He made sure that he spoke to everyone. Some were shackled more than Bo. The guards joked with him, and it was shocking to me because it was like meeting at a barbershop.”

Many of the prisoners Pittard had counseled, men without a death sentence hanging over their heads, were sullen or even hostile. At times, they were sincerely friendly, but they could quickly shift into a more glib and manipulative mood.

Tharpe wasn’t like that—but Pittard still wasn’t sure about him. “The first time I talked to him, he said he had become a Christian a long time ago in prison,” Pittard says. “I had been trained to be careful about people trying to play you.”

But one thing was clear to Pittard about Tharpe: His self-described journey was the opposite of most. “He kind of did it backwards in the sense that he said, ‘I want to clean myself up so that Jesus might talk to me. I need to be a different person first.’”

Tharpe said that each night, he reviewed his day for sins he might have committed. “When he laid his head on his pillow, he would say, ‘I made another sinless day.’”

Pittard listened. In a journal he began keeping, he wrote, “I didn’t know for sure if he was trustworthy.”

The two men agreed to meet again in a week. Soon, they were talking every Tuesday (later, every Wednesday)—Pittard making the hour-plus drive down I-75, sometimes before the sun had risen.

IN THE SAME WAY THAT PITTARD had studied the Bible, looking for answers, he studied Tharpe. As weeks of visits became months, he noticed an admirable consistency in the condemned man’s beliefs—and a slow awakening deep within himself.

During one visit, Tharpe told Pittard that, in the infinitesimal chance that he’d someday be released, one of the first things he would do is return to the place that was his closest encounter to heaven: the fishing hole by his house. He would sit on the bank like he did with his friend, back when he was a boy, before the drugs and the horrific crime he committed; before the death sentence, the nearly three decades on Death Row; before all the regrets, the torture of memory, the awful knowledge that while he was still alive and able to regret, the person whose life he took was not.

Tharpe would later write to Pittard that his biggest sorrow and regret was “that if Jackie was going to find Jesus, I cut off her chance.”

Nearly three decades later, there’s still unimaginable pain coursing through the family. Tharpe wrote in a letter to Pittard that one of his granddaughters “said her happiest day was going to be the day I took my last breath.” He wrote to Pittard (and, indirectly, to his granddaughter): “If these are my last words, I say don’t let hate be any part of you. Forgive me for yourself.”

(Attempts to reach the Freeman family, Tharpe’s estranged wife, and his children were unsuccessful.)

Pittard’s own family initially had a hard time understanding what motivated him to return to Jackson week after week. “I wasn’t on board at first,” says Marsha Pittard, his wife. “I was worried if they had some kind of incident, or they went into a lockdown, that these are murderers, these are rapists, these are criminals. But then I saw how Buddy got involved in Bo’s life.”

Pittard and Tharpe became more than counselor and inmate. “I think we both feel like we’re brothers,” Pittard says. “I talk about my family; he talks about his. There were so many things we could relate to—he fished, I fished. He played football, I played football.” And both men went to church when they were young and lost their way.

“Things look far simpler the further you are from them,” Pittard says, alluding to his earlier beliefs about men in prison. “You get involved in them, and it’s a pretty complicated mess. There are things involved you never have thought about. It’ll definitely change you.”

What changed were not just his views, but the philosophical foundation on which he had built his life. “It was the people,” Pittard says. “I began seeing human beings. I began hearing their life stories. Everything in me softened.”

Tharpe—and his faith—impressed Pittard most of all. “He trusts that there is a God, and that He has forgiven him,” Pittard says. “And I think Bo is forgiven. And I’m never gonna be in favor of the death penalty again. I became, you could say, a bleeding heart, a person I had always detested. I am that person now.”

Suddenly, the meaning of the Matthew 20 parable, the one about the workers receiving the same wages no matter how much time they’d spent on the job, the one that Pittard assumed he understood, crystallized: The message wasn’t that the landowner had the right to pay people whatever he wanted. It was that the landowner—God, in Pittard’s new way of thinking—was explaining that those who accept Him, even “at the last minute of our lives, can get the same reward as someone who has lived their life as a preacher,” Pittard says. “That we’re never unworthy. He will accept us and give us the same reward no matter how bad we’ve been, no matter what we’ve done, including these prisoners—and including myself, when I was coming back to the church.”

ONE DAY, ABOUT SIX MONTHS into their relationship, Pittard and Tharpe were reading a Bible passage that touched on the necessity of baptism. Pittard paused for a moment and looked at Tharpe: Would he like to be baptized? “He said, ‘Absolutely,’” Pittard recalls. Tharpe asked if Buddy could do it.

Pittard’s first reaction was, yes, of course. By then, Pittard was signing his emails to Tharpe with “Love ya, Buddy,” and Tharpe was writing him with the subject line “Buddy, my brother.” Pittard had become so convinced of Tharpe’s faith and repentance that he had contacted Tharpe’s attorney and offered to speak on the inmate’s behalf at any hearings, write letters—anything they felt might help his case. He had not made such an offer to any other inmate he counseled.

“I think Bo is forgiven. And I’m never gonna be in favor of the death penalty again.”

In quiet moments, however, he struggled with the idea of baptizing someone, much less a man on death row desperate for salvation. Was Pittard spiritually qualified? He was just a lay Christian and, in his words, not a strong one. Among the things that nagged him was whether his actions in regard to his faith were what God actually wanted him to be doing—whether he was acting “in God’s will.”

There was also the question of whether the prison would allow it. He settled that aspect quickly. If he were to baptize Tharpe, he would do it without telling prison officials. “They could either kick me out or whatever would happen.”

Finally, Pittard agreed: He would perform the rite on July 18, 2017. But he still lay awake each night, wondering, questioning. Could he be given a sign? The Bible was full of signs.

Three days before the baptism date, Pittard’s granddaughter called. She knew little if anything about his prison ministry, certainly nothing of his internal struggle over Tharpe’s baptism. She told Pittard that she had a friend who’d just returned from Israel and that he had insisted she give her grandfather something he brought back: a vial of water from the Jordan River.

“You can imagine all the things that little vial of water went through to get to me,” Pittard says. “From the Jordan River, through customs. He had to make sure the bottle didn’t get broken. Put it in his luggage somehow or another. Get it back to the Atlanta airport and then bring it to Athens, where he lived, and then give it to [my granddaughter]. And then she happened to call me on that day, of all days, to give me the vial.”

He believed his question was answered. “It is the only time in my life that I know I have been in the will of God, that I know I was doing what He wanted. Logically, I couldn’t see there was any way those things could come together if they weren’t a God thing.”

ON JULY 18, 2017, in the visiting room of the prison, with other inmates sitting unaware on benches talking with family, Pittard and Tharpe knelt on the prison floor. Tharpe began to recite the “sinner’s prayer,” a pledge of repentance among Evangelical Christians.

Other people in the visiting room—inmates, lawyers, and visitors—realized what was happening, gathered around, and knelt beside them.

Pittard poured some water from the vial into his hand and, while intoning the words, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit . . . ” sprinkled it on Tharpe’s bowed head. Pittard brought out a handkerchief for Tharpe to wipe his brow. When Pittard reached to take the fabric back, Tharpe told him, “No, Buddy. I think I’ll leave it there. It feels warm.”

TWO MONTHS LATER, in early September 2017—nearly 27 years after his crime—a Jones County Superior Court judge set a date and time for Tharpe’s execution: September 26 at 7 p.m.

Tharpe’s lawyers scrambled to file appeals and stays. As the execution date approached, all were unsuccessful.

The day before the execution—on the anniversary of Freeman’s death—the state Board of Pardons and Paroles held a hearing to consider a clemency petition filed by Tharpe’s legal team. (The lawyers declined to comment for this story.) In the petition, Tharpe’s relatives—including his 95-year-old mother, his sister, and the eldest of his five daughters (from his previous relationship), along with prison staff and at least 20 friends—pleaded that his sentence be reduced to life without parole.

The petition also states that “many of the victims’ family members support clemency for Mr. Tharpe,” but that portion of the document was redacted “to protect the victims and victims’ family members’ identities and privacy.”

At the hearing, 20 people testified that he deserved mercy. It’s unclear whether Migrisus Tharpe was among them. Decades earlier, she had testified in her husband’s defense at his sentencing hearing, in an attempt to convince a jury to spare him the death penalty. According to Pittard, Tharpe’s estranged wife has never visited him in prison, though she has made contact with him and eventually allowed at least one of their daughters to see him.

The board also heard from those whose “lives were shattered” by the crime, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In a statement to Atlanta magazine, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen A. Bradley wrote: “The victim’s family are truly some of the finest people I have ever met and have been forever devastated by this horrible crime. The description that Gary [Freeman] gives of pulling up with his children to find their mother’s body in the ditch will never leave me.”

At the end of the hearing, the parole board voted to uphold Tharpe’s death sentence.

Pittard was not among the people who were allowed to witness the execution the next day—the 28 places were taken by officials, media witnesses, and a few of Tharpe’s family members. “I wouldn’t have wanted” to witness it, Pittard says. “But if he had wanted me there, I would have gone.” Yet Pittard was among the handful of people to visit Tharpe that day.

“When he greeted us, he was cheerful,” Pittard recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about me. God either had a job for me here or has a job for me in heaven.”

Tharpe took a chair in the middle of the visitation room, and the four other men present—Pittard, another minister, a chaplain, and a good friend of Tharpe’s—sang Tharpe’s favorite gospel song, “Oh Happy Day.” Then, in a broken voice, Pittard sang another song to Tharpe: “Soon, and Very Soon, We Are Going to See the King.” Tharpe didn’t know the words but smiled and tried to sing along.

Tharpe, on this day, was not shackled, and when it was time for Pittard to leave, he was able to give Tharpe a hug. “We love you,” Pittard told him. “Keep your faith.”

On the drive back up I-75, the strength that Pittard had been projecting finally dissipated. “I can’t really say I’ve ever been a boo-hoo kind of guy,” he says. “But the ride back was pretty rough.”

At 3 p.m., four hours before the execution, Tharpe was put on death watch to make sure he didn’t try to kill himself. At 5 p.m., the Georgia Supreme Court denied Tharpe’s request for a stay of execution, leaving one slim, last-ditch hope that the U.S. Supreme Court might issue a stay.

The clock ticked down to the final half hour, then 20 minutes, then 15. The hour of the execution came and went as prison officials awaited the final word from the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, more than three hours after Tharpe was supposed to have been executed, the phone rang. The high court had granted a temporary stay, halting the execution for at least as long as it would take for the court to review an appeal by Tharpe’s lawyers that cited racist comments made by one of Tharpe’s jurors years after the trial. In a 1998 sworn affidavit, the juror stated: “After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”

Unable to bear hearing news of the execution, Pittard had gone to bed early. At just after 11 p.m., however, he heard his wife yelling from upstairs.

“They said Bo has received a stay of execution!” she hollered.

At first, Pittard couldn’t believe it. He ran up the stairs and hugged his wife. “It was just like another miracle,” he says, confirmation that “maybe, just maybe, God has another plan.”

SITTING ON HIS FRONT PORCH, POPE, Tharpe’s brother-in-law, told my uncle: “He mentions you all the time.”

“Oh, he’s called you?” Pittard asked.

“Yes, he calls me just about every other day.”

Pope said he and Tharpe talk about life in the old neighborhood, about the status of Tharpe’s case, about God. He said he would love to visit Tharpe, but then he points at the oxygen tank next to him.

There’s likely not much time left for a visit, regardless. Not only is Tharpe receiving chemotherapy for liver cancer, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week not to take up his case. That clears the way for the state to set an execution date.

Pope recalled trying to talk Tharpe out of going to what would become a murder scene that day. “Man, don’t even go near [your wife] until you get yourself together,” he recalled saying.

“Yeah, his thinking at the time was real mixed up,” Pittard said.

The conversation trailed off. Pittard did not want to think such thoughts on this day. He was here to see Tharpe’s boyhood home and, if possible, the fishing hole the condemned man was drawn to as a child.

Pope pointed out to Pittard the direction of the pond. “It’s up there on top of the hill,” he said, motioning across the property. “When you get on top of the hill, it will be on your right.” We made our way up the hill. The old house just off the water looked abandoned when Pittard peered through the chain-link fence, but the pond itself—ringed by tall, gently swaying grass—seemed ready to yield catfish even now.

“I don’t know if Bo will ever get there in this lifetime,” Pittard said once we returned to the car to head back up I-75. “If not, I believe he will in the next.”

We might have lingered longer, but my uncle needed to get home. The next day, he was going to make yet another trip to see Tharpe. “I guess,” he said, “I’ll keep visiting him until the day one of us dies.”

This article appears in our March 2019 issue.

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