A gay South Dakota prisoner’s claim that his death sentence was unconstitutionally tainted by homophobia was denied U.S. Supreme Court review.
In rejecting Charles Rhines’ appeals on April 15, the justices declined to take up what would have been a hot-button case on multiple levels. It pits two evolving areas of the law against one another—gay rights and the sanctity of the jury room—at a time when capital cases have sparked sharp divides among the justices.
But though heated dissents have been common of late, there wasn’t a peep of protest from any of the justices as the high court cleared the way for Rhines’ execution for a brutal 1992 murder.
Lawyers supporting Rhines, however, spoke up after the denial.
“Allowing Charles Rhines’ death sentence to stand defies Constitutional protections and breaks with Supreme Court precedent,” said Daniel Harawa, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., which filed an amicus brief supporting Rhines.
“The Supreme Court is uniquely empowered to eradicate discrimination from the jury system, and this disappointing decision undermines public confidence in the administration of justice and the rule of law,” Harawa said.
Noting that recent high court precedent outlawed racial prejudice in the jury room, Rhines’ lawyer, Shawn Nolan, said anti-gay prejudice likewise undermines “public confidence in the fairness of the system, particularly when jurors must decide between life imprisonment and death.”
Such bias “deprived Mr. Rhines of his right to a fair sentencing process,” said Nolan, chief of the Capital Habeas Unit at the Federal Community Defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In his unsuccessful attempt to get his appeal heard by the justices, Rhines pointed to that racial prejudice precedent, 2017’s Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. There the court pierced the otherwise sacrosanct veil of jury deliberations to undo convictions marred by racist remarks.
Supported by the ACLU and law professors in addition to LDF, Rhines argued that the reasoning from Peña-Rodriguez should apply to his sexual orientation bias claim, particularly because he’s facing the ultimate punishment.
He pointed to jurors’ alleged statements during deliberations at his 1993 murder trial, where one said he knew Rhines was a homosexual “and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Another said locking Rhines up with other men for life “would be sending him where he wants to go.”
Rhines also pointed to a jury note from the deliberations, where they asked the judge if he would be allowed to “mix with the general inmate population,” “brag about his crime” to “young men,” or “have a cellmate.”
The state said Rhines was procedurally blocked from making his claim. It also disputed the claim itself. His juror affidavits are “inherently unreliable” and were procured by harassment and ambush, South Dakota officials argued.
Jurors were instead motivated by “calloused and gruesome nature of the murder,” officials said. They didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the denial.
The jury sentenced Rhines to death for the murder of Donnivan Schaeffer, who caught Rhines robbing the doughnut shop where Schaeffer worked. Rhines “pounded a hunting knife” into the base of Schaeffer’s skull, “partially severing his brain stem,” the state recounted in court papers.
Officials said he gave a “bloodcurdling confession,” cackling as he compared the young man’s death spasms to a “beheaded chicken running around a barnyard.”
The case is Rhines v. Young, U.S., 18-8029, 18-8030, review denied 4/15/19.
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(Adds background, orders link, and statements from Nolan, Harawa. )