A Jury May Have Sentenced a Man to Death Because He Is Gay. It’s Time for a Federal Court to Hear His Bias Claim.

UPDATE: On Monday, Nov 4, Charles Rhines was executed. The Supreme Court refused, on three separate occasions, to order a court to evaluate new evidence of anti-gay bias in the jury room.

Last week, civil rights groups, including the ACLU and Lambda Legal, urged the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to accept the case of Charles Rhines, a gay man in South Dakota whose sexual orientation may have played a role in his death sentence in 1993. 

In a related appeal, the Eighth Circuit denied relief on many of Mr. Rhines’s claims the day after the friend-of-the-court filing. But the federal appeals court didn’t address whether Mr. Rhines will be allowed to present evidence of anti-gay bias, as the groups had asked in their friend-of-the-court brief. The Eighth Circuit can still take the case, and it should. Here’s why.

As I noted in June, when the Supreme Court declined to review Mr. Rhines’s death sentence:

Some of the jurors who imposed the death penalty on Charles Rhines, who was convicted of murder, have said they thought the alternative — a life sentence served in a men’s prison — was something he would enjoy as a gay man.

During deliberations, the jury had often discussed the fact that Mr. Rhines was gay and there was “a lot of disgust” about it, one juror recalled in an interview, according to the court petition. Another said that jurors knew he was gay and “thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” A third recounted hearing that if the jury did not sentence Mr. Rhines to death, “if he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go.”

That’s highly alarming. Yet Mr. Rhines has never had the chance to present this evidence of juror bias to a federal judge because he didn’t know about it until two decades later.

In 2016, jurors from his trial came forward to explain the role Mr. Rhines’s sexual orientation played in the decision to sentence him to death. Once Mr. Rhines learned of the anti-gay statements made during jury deliberations, he asked a federal trial judge to allow him to update his petition to add this new information. At every turn, Mr. Rhines’s pleas have been rejected. As a result, no federal judge has even considered the jurors’ statements to determine whether anti-gay bias was a motivation for the jury to sentence Mr. Rhines to death.

Fortunately, it isn’t too late for the Eighth Circuit to change that. As the civil rights groups explained in their friend-of-the-court brief, our judicial system has safeguards to prevent bias based on sexual orientation — but those safeguards are not failsafe. When they do fail, federal courts have a duty to step in to ensure that “our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.”

That is particularly true in cases like Mr. Rhines’s, where bias against him because of his sexual orientation may have made the difference between life and death.

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Anonymous

The only reason I am opposed to the death penalty is because the person may be innocent. The article does not say whether or not he claims to be innocent or not. If he is guilty he deserves the penalty. If he is innocent he should be released at once.

Anonymous

If the death penalty was an option, not a mandate, during sentencing, then obviously he doesn't necessarily deserve the death penalty. His guilt or innocence isn't the debate here. His sentence is, and it's pretty well established eye for an eye isn't a deterrent. Besides that, there are convicted murderers who serve their time and become productive members of society. The entire point of incarceration is supposed to be rehabilitation, even for murderers.

Your opinion isn't mandated by law and it's just a reflection of what's wrong with society in general. He's basically serving a life sentence and that should really be good enough for anyone.

Anonymous

The death penalty, since 1976 in America, is NEVER mandatory. In whatever state it requires the jury to make affirmative findings to send someone to death versus life in prison or even life with a chance of parole

Anonymous

How ignorant of those JURORS are for Even bringing his sexuality to that case!!!

Anonymous

So why was the guy on trial for murder?
Did he kill someone?
Is theer proof he did?

Anonymous

Rhines sadistically killed a white baker and is going to die for it.
If the baker had been black it would not have been murder?
These long delays between sentence and execution make USA look stupid.
Sentence then execute like the Chinese do.

What are you smoking, and where can I get some? This isn't about race, this is about a jury deciding to sentence a man to death instead of life in prison because they thought he'd enjoy prison due solely to his sexual orientation. They changed the sentence due to something irrelevant to the crime. Grow up.

Denise Engle

Unbelievable! A man loses his life because he wouldnt be deprived of the possibility of romance as well as his freedom, his contact with the world, his ability to dictate his own movement, attire, choice of meals, entertaiment, his furnishings...everything that is the expression of himself. Is there no law against this? Doesnt anyone have responsibility for reviewing juries deliberations? Especially in cases where capital punishment may be levied!! I am appalled that it took that long for a member to come forward. I am sickened that the presiding judge felt it appropriate to hold his defendants to a standard other than that which we the people have mandated. I dont care where he lives, what he did or what religion the court members are. Homosexuality was most certainly decriminalized by the time his trial took place. No one has the right to play Lynch mob with anothers life. Someone needs tp explain that to people. We require your judgement and your cortex. Leave your religion and your personal morals at home. Or make damn sure you arent selected.

Candace

Rhines murdered a young man who begged for his life. He stabbed him three separate times and left him to die, so the man couldn't be a witness to his burglary of a business. Rhines didn't show any remorse. That is why he should get the death penalty. He has already lived 25 more years since he took that young man's life. It was wrong if they gave him the death penalty because of his sexual orientation instead his cold blooded murder of an innocent young man.

Anonymous

May be an arguable sentence but who actually put him in prison? Choose bad playmates, you get bad outcomes...

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