The Supreme Court declined on Thursday to intervene in a case where a death row inmate claims he was sentenced to die because he is gay.
The 25-year-old case concerns Charles Rhines, convicted in January 1993 of murdering 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer a year prior. Rhines was intending to rob a doughnut shop in Rapid City, South Dakota from which he’d been fired weeks earlier when he encountered Schaffer, who worked as a courier for the business. On the evening of March 8, 1992, Rhines stabbed him three times with a buck knife.
But the now 60-year-old defendant claims anti-LGBTQ bias tainted the jury’s deliberation in the case.
A petition filed with the nation’s highest bench in Rhines v. South Dakota alleges that jury members “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison,” thus sentencing him to death. According to Rhines’ attorneys, one juror said that putting him behind bars would amount to “sending him where he wants to go.”
Jurors interviewed prior to the SCOTUS appeal claimed “there was lots of discussion of homosexuality” when debating a verdict, which elicited widespread “disgust” among members of what they described as a “farming community.”
“There were a lot of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that,’” one juror claimed.
But the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to the case, meaning that the earlier ruling will stand. As is customary when SCOTUS declines to weigh in on lower court rulings, the nine-member bench did not state why it would not be taking up Rhines v. South Dakota.
Rhines’ appeal hinged on the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, in which justices found that racial bias on jury panels violates an individual’s Sixth Amendment guarantee of an impartial jury. In that case, one juror felt that the testimony of Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez, accused of sexual harassment and misconduct, was not “credible” because he is Latino.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, claimed the ruling was intended to “ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy.”
But University of Oklahoma Professor Stephen E. Henderson argued the appeal in Rhines v. South Dakota may have been filed too soon for the slow-moving bench.
“It seems unlikely that the Court wants to expand Peña-Rodriguez so quickly,” Henderson told Bloomberg Law, adding that Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado “changed over two-hundred years of legal precedent… and there has been no time to work out the many necessary details even in the racial context.”
The State of South Dakota has likewise held that the Peña-Rodriguez case did not create an exception for alleged homosexual bias,” while denying Rhines experienced anti-LGBTQ discrimination at all.
In its brief opposing Rhines’ appeal, South Dakota Attorney General Marty J. Jackley and Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund alleged that “every juror contacted by South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) stated consistently and unequivocally that Rhines’ homosexuality had no bearing on their decision to impose a death sentence.”
According to the state, the jurors reported that deliberations “were conducted in an ‘extremely professional’ manner.”
Instead the Attorney General’s office cited Rhines’ “bloodcurdling confession” as the motivation for his harsh sentencing. As court documents allege, the defendant cackled as he compared his victim’s death to a “beheaded chicken running around a barnyard.”
But surveys conducted by Lambda Legal show that jury bias is extremely common when defendants—and even plaintiffs—are LGBTQ. Nearly one in six respondents (16 percent) said “their LGBTQ identity was raised in court when sexual orientation and gender identity were not relevant to the case at hand,” while 11 percent claimed that such information was “disclosed in court against their will.”
Attorneys for Rhines have not stated whether they plan to pursue further legal action.