In the Case of Rhines v. Young, Evidence Shows Some Jurors May Have Voted for Death for Charles Rhines Because They Believed he Would Enjoy Life in Prison with Other Men
Charles Rhines is a gay man on death row in South Dakota. New evidence showed that some of the jurors who sentenced him to death “knew that he was a homosexual and thought he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison” and thought that “if he’s gay we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life in prison].” The jury’s anti-gay bias deprived him of his rights to a fair trial and due process under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Before trial, Mr. Rhines’s attorneys asked prospective jurors if they had any anti-gay bias that would prevent them from giving Mr. Rhines a fair trial. The jurors selected to hear his case said they could be fair and free of prejudice. This turned out not to be true.
At trial, the jury heard through witnesses presented by the state that Mr. Rhines was gay and had relationships with other men. They were asked to choose between life in prison without parole and the death penalty for a murder committed when an employee surprised Mr. Rhines in the course of a commercial burglary. During their deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge indicating that deliberations had become infected with anti-gay stereotypes and prejudices.
The judge did not address these questions and failed to head off the anti-gay bias that the questions revealed. The same day, about eight hours later, the jury voted to sentence Mr. Rhines to death.
New evidence confirms that some of the jurors who voted to impose the death penalty on Mr. Rhines did so because they thought the alternative – a life sentence in a men’s prison – was something he would enjoy as a gay man. Three jurors have made statements indicating that anti-gay prejudices played a significant role in the jury’s decision-making.
After a verdict and sentencing, the courts do not usually inquire into jury deliberations. However, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized an exception to this rule and directed states to consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or prejudice in convicting a defendant (Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado).
In Peña-Rodriguez, after the jury voted to convict a person in a non-death penalty case, two jurors said that another juror believed that the defendant was guilty of unlawful sexual contact and harassment “because he’s Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The Court found that evidence of anti-Mexican bias “cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict” and set the verdict aside.
In July 2018, Mr. Rhines filed an Application for Certificate of Appealability with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit asserting that Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado applies to his evidence that at least one juror relied on anti-gay stereotypes and animus to sentence him to death. In August 2018, six civil rights groups – Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National LGBT Bar Association – filed an amici brief with the Eighth Circuit urging the court to afford Mr. Rhines the opportunity to establish whether bias based on his sexual orientation was a motivation for some jurors in sentencing him to death.
In April 2019, the Supreme Court declined to take up the case of Charles Rhines, a death row inmate who sought to challenge his sentence based on juror statements that indicated discrimination based on Rhines' homosexuality.
In May 2019, the state of South Dakota filed its intent to obtain a warrant for the execution of Charles Russell Rhines. Absent a stay, the state intends to proceed with Rhines’ execution in early November. In response, the ACLU has sent a letter to Gov. Kristi Noem urging her to grant Rhines clemency.