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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Linda Way

If he was given the death sentence simply because he was gay, and otherwise they might have given him life in prison, then he should definitely have a new trial. I know someone who was given an extra sentence because of his long hair and hepatitis. All he did was defend himself from attack and his attacker died. We should never sentence people based off of things Like how they look, or their sexual preference, or their color. I hope he goes right back to life in prison, but I hope he sets a precedent as to why we do not sentence people to harsher sentences simply because they’re gay or have long hair or have a disease

Anonymous

Where's he been living for 2 decades? In a men's prison? Did he have too much fun there? And -- 20 years waiting on death row?

Msgtdoug

If you read the article, it was mentioned a few timea...... MURDER.

That being said, are you so dumb that you can't run a simple search using his name?

Anonymous

I guess they thought that prison only punished people by preventing them from having sex. Haven’t they ever heard of conjugal visits? That’s allowed in South Dakota.

Anonymous

If the jurors admit they gave him the death sentence as said "because he was gay", then those jurors should be facing charges. Not only did the jurors not do their unbiased jobs as directed but they admit discrimination.

Just me

The court should certainly take this evidence into consideration, but I would only suggest that because it sets a terrible precedent. This guy, gay or straight, is HORRIBLE. Here's what he did: "Rhines, caught burglarizing a doughnut shop in Rapid City, South Dakota by an employee named Donnivan Schaeffer, stabbed the 22-year old in the abdomen and back. Then, as Schaeffer pleaded for his life, Rhines thrust the blade into the base of his skull." My guess is a non homophobic jury would hate him just as much. But it isn't up to me.

Anonymous

So this is y ppl dont like dems anymore cuz they just say shit even when it's not true. Murder is not the only crime u can get the death sentence for so I think whoever made that comment needs to do some more reading instead of just saying stuff cuz they think its true

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