Rights Groups Question Gay Man’s Death Sentence

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A South Dakota jury may have wrongfully sentenced a gay man to death based on some jurors’ belief that he would enjoy life in prison with other men, several civil rights groups claim.

Six civil rights organizations filed an amici brief Thursday on behalf of Charles Rhines, urging the Eighth Circuit to hear his appeal. They include the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Dakota, Lambda Legal, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National LGBT Bar Association.

Rhines is currently on death row in South Dakota for the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer, a doughnut shop employee who caught Rhines burglarizing the shop. After stabbing Schaeffer repeatedly in the stomach and back, Rhines plunged the knife into the base of Schaeffer’s skull as he pleaded for his life.

After Rhines’ conviction, a jury was asked to decide between life without parole or death. The jury chose death, in part due to an anti-gay bias, the civil rights organizations claim.

“Mr. Rhines’s case represents one of the most extreme forms anti-LGBT bias can take,” Lambda Legal Fair Courts Project Attorney Ethan Rice said in a statement. “Evidence suggests that he has been on death row for the past 25 years because he is a gay man. The constitutional right to a fair trial must include the right to establish whether a verdict or sentence was imposed due to jury bias.”

According to the amici brief, new evidence “suggests that at least some members of the jury accepted the notion that life in prison without parole would be fun for a gay person – so much so that they felt it was necessary to impose the death penalty instead. In other words, significant evidence suggests that the jury may have sentenced Mr. Rhines to death based not on the facts of his case, but because he is gay.”

The organizations point to a note sent to the judge that showed Rhines’ homosexuality had become a focal point for deliberations. Jurors asked whether, if sentenced to life without parole, Rhines would “be allowed to mix with the general inmate population,” be able to “brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and/or young men,” or enjoy “conjugal visits,” among other questions about Rhines’s access to other men while in prison.

The evidence comes from three statements from jurors who served in the capital case. The ACLU and the other groups claim the judge failed to address these questions and did not head off the anti-gay bias that was revealed. Eight hours after sending the note, the jury voted to sentence Rhines to death.

One juror stated that the jury “knew that [Mr. Rhines] was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison,” according the amici brief.

Another juror recalled one member of the jury commenting that “if he’s gay we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life without parole].” A third juror confirmed that “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality. There was a lot of disgust.”

In support of Rhines’ appeal to the Eighth Circuit, the civil groups point to a 2017 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, which held that states must consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a defendant in a non-capital case.

Rhines’ attorneys argue that since the principles underlying Peña-Rodriguez apply to anti-gay prejudice, the Eighth Circuit should allow him the opportunity to present evidence that anti-gay bias was a factor in some jurors’ decisions to sentence him to death.

The amici brief outlines the history of discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the United States and claims the jury’s decision on whether Rhines should live or die occurred in that context of discrimination.

“The history of exclusion and current societal prejudice based on sexual orientation inform and shape the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in our nation’s courtrooms,” the brief states. “Bias based on sexual orientation in jury selection and service is notably harmful, as it reinforces historical prejudice in the court system, interferes with litigants’ rights to a fair trial, and undermines the integrity of the judicial system.”

Research shows that discriminatory attitudes against lesbians, gays, and bisexual people negatively affect their experiences in the civil and criminal courts as jurors, litigants, court employees, and other participants, according to the brief.

For example, in a 2001 study of the California court system, more than a third of lesbian, gay, and bisexual court users “felt threatened in the court setting because of their sexual orientation.” Of jurors who participated in mock trials between 2002 and 2008, a jury research firm found that 45 percent believed that being gay “is not an acceptable lifestyle.”

The civil rights groups claim that these persistent attitudes open the door to a gay defendant who is convicted of murder to receive the death penalty, instead of a sentence of life without parole, because of sexual orientation rather than the nature of the crime.

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