Metro Weekly

Gay man sentenced to death claims homophobic jury thought he would enjoy life in prison

Charles Rhines' lawyers believe he received the death penalty because of the jury's homophobia and are requesting SCOTUS hear his case

Supreme Court — Photo: Todd Franson

A gay convicted murderer who claims he received the death penalty because his jury thought he might enjoy being in prison with other men is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider his sentencing.

In 1993, Rhines was given the death penalty for killing Donnivan Schaeffer, after Schaeffer discovered Rhines robbing his Rapid City doughnut store’s office. Rhines proceeded to stab Schaeffer several times with a hunting knife, including in the neck and skull.

The jury quickly convicted Rhines, who had a previous criminal record, but when they were deciding whether he should receive a life sentence or a death sentence, Rhines’ sexuality apparently came into consideration — something his lawyers didn’t discover until years later, according to The Marshall Project.

“There was lots of discussion of homosexuality,” one juror recalled, “There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’”

Other jurors allegedly said that Rhines’ “shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison” and that being incarcerated with other men would be “sending him where he wants to go.”

Rhines’ lawyers are requesting the Supreme Court to consider whether his sentence is invalid due to anti-gay bias. The high court has previously made exceptions to jurors statements being confidential, and has ordered that cases be reconsidered when it has been found that racism motivated a jury’s decisions.

Shawn Nolan, supervisor of Rhines’ defense team, says that homophobia is “a natural next step.”

“Tasking jurors with the decision whether to sentence an individual to death and, then, precluding evidence that jurors relied on anti-gay animus and stereotypes violates the right to impartial jury sentencing,” Rhines’ lawyers said in their Supreme Court brief. “Like race-based bias, anti-gay bias causes systemic harm to the justice system and, in particular, capital jury sentencing. Prejudice based on sexual orientation is just as long-standing and deeply rooted.”

South Dakota is opposing the defense, saying that the jurors gave him the death sentence for the severity of Rhines’ crime and that the testimony of the jurors is not reliable. They’re also saying that sexual orientation and race are not comparable forms of bias.

“No politician has ever proposed constructing a wall to keep homosexuals out of the country,” the state’s brief says. “No civil war has been fought over [sexual orientation]. No nationwide pogrom has been perpetrated for the enslavement or eradication of homosexuals.”

The Supreme Court is expected to announce whether they will hear Rhines’ case on Monday.

Rhines is currently South Dakota’s longest-serving death row inmate, after a series of appeals have delayed his execution.

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