Charles Rhines has already spent nearly half his life on death row. On April 15 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. Now, barring clemency from the governor, Rhines will be executed — because he is gay.
No one disputes the facts of Rhines’ crime, including Rhines. In 1993, while burglarizing the doughnut shop from which he’d been recently fired, a worker came in. Rhines stabbed the man to death.
He was convicted of first-degree murder.
The circumstances of Rhines’ sentencing has been what’s raised questions for years, causing the editorial boards of major newspapers to call for clemency and The Marshall Project to take up his case.
Shawn Nolan, who oversees Rhines’ defense team at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, called sexual orientation “a natural next step,” with regard to ascertaining biases in sentencing. Courts have already determined that racial bias in sentencing is reason to overturn a conviction and allow for a new trial or, at least, re-consideration of sentencing.
Rhines is one of only three murderers in South Dakota curently on death row. In South Dakota a life sentence cannot be paroled; only the governor can commute it. A life sentence truly means life.
When the jury was sent to deliberate on Rhines’ sentence, they wanted to know what life in prison would be like for Rhines, who they’d been told was gay. Jurors asked the judge if they sentenced Rhines to life in prison, would he be able to mix with other prisoners, “create a group of followers or admirers,” have access to “new and/or young men jailed for lesser crimes” or be housed alone or with a roommate?
“There was lots of discussion of homosexuality,” one juror recalled, according to affidavits later filed in court. “There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’” Another juror said they “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” A third recalled overhearing a fellow juror say that life in prison would mean “sending him where he wants to go.” Another juror recalled “There was a lot of disgust.”
Concerns over whether Rhines’ gayness would mean he’d view prison as a sexual playground led the jury to sentence him to death instead of life in prison.
These biases formed the basis for Rhines’ appeal. But on April 15, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, effectively sentencing him to death. As The Marshall Project explained, Rhines’ case was “tainted by homophobia.” They argued, “In the wake of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision in which the court ruled for a baker who declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, the Rhines case could pave the way for new legal debates about how the justice system treats LGBTQ+ people accused of crimes. Simply put: Can a sentence be overturned if it was based on someone’s sexual orientation?”
The federal courts and the SCOTUS are now stacked with conservative judges and justices, since the Trump administration. The ability of marginalized people like LGBTQ prisoners to get a fair hearing has been greatly diminished.
In arguing their brief against Rhines’, South Dakota prosecutors said that sexual orientation does not rise to the level of institutional bias in the same way that racism and anti-Semitism do.
Editorials on Rhines’ case have argued that while his crime was certainly terrible, the sentencing was disproportionate and based not on the crime itself, but on his sexual orientation.
Complicating the case is the fact that Rhine’s attorneys were unable to uncover the evidence of the tainted jury until after his appeals had been heard and rejected by federal courts.
A sentence imposed based solely on bias against sexual orientation sets an alarming precedent for other lesbian and gay defendants. The SCOTUS has ruled in other cases that evidence that a jury’s sentence was based on racial bias can be used to impel a new trial.
The Marshall Project explained that sexual orientation biases jurors against both gay defendants and gay victims. In cases out of Kentucky and California, for example, jurors spoke disparagingly about gay victims, suggesting they were somehow culpable because they were lured by the defendants, and the implication was that this made the jurors less likely to vote for death against a heterosexual defendant who killed someone gay or lesbian.
Rhines’ attorneys are considering what options might remain for another appeal. But if they find none, then Rhines, who has already served 26 years for the crime, will be executed.