Earlier this summer, a convicted murderer in South Dakota asked the Supreme Court to block his planned execution. His lawyers had uncovered evidence that during his trial almost a quarter-century ago, the jury deliberations were shot through with homophobia. But earlier this week, the Supreme Court refused to take up the case.
In 1992, Charles Rhines broke into the Rapid City doughnut shop where he once worked, intending to clean out the place. When one of Rhines’ former coworkers, Donnivan Schaefer, walked in on him, Rhines stabbed Schaefer to death. He was convicted a year later and sentenced to death, though his execution has been delayed for 24 years due to numerous appeals.
Rhines was an openly gay man living in an area of South Dakota that, at the time, was very unfriendly to the LGBT community. Just how unfriendly became clear in late 2016, Rhines’ new lawyers discovered a disturbing note that jurors had sent to the trial judge.
The jurors wanted to know a number of details about what Rhines’ living conditions would be if they sentenced him to life without parole–whether he would have a cellmate, be allowed to form a “group of followers or admirers,” and/or have conjugal visits. The judge declined to give specific answers, and the death sentence came eight hours later.
Rhines’ lead counsel, Shawn Nolan, told The Intercept that the note’s meaning was obvious–“there was some anti-gay bias in that jury room.” Interviews with the jurors confirmed it. One juror said that when the subject of Rhines’ sexual orientation came up, the general reaction was “Ew, I can’t believe that.” Another recalled that many of his colleagues felt Rhines “shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Another felt that they would be sending Rhines “where he wants to go” if they gave him life.
Normally, testimony about jury deliberations can’t be used to overturn a verdict. This is due to a longstanding common-law principle intended to protect the sanctity of jury deliberations, called the “no-impeachment rule.” However, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that when there is evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations, the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by an impartial jury trumps the no-impeachment rule.
Rhines appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court, who ruled against him in January. Undaunted, Rhines asked the Supreme Court to hear his case in May. Read the petition for cert here. Rhines argued that jury deliberations tainted by anti-gay bias violate both the Sixth and 14th Amendments, and therefore his execution shouldn’t go forward.
However, on Monday, the Supremes denied cert without comment–a move that did not sit well on Twitter.
It also didn’t sit well with Ria Tabacco Mar, an LGBT rights expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. In a burning op-ed for The New York Times, Tabacco Mar argued that it was “difficult to square” the Supremes’ reluctance to take up Rhines’ case with its observation in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that states have an obligation to protect their LGBT residents from discrimination.
This may not be the final word on this case. Rhines has an appeal pending before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the judge should have given further instructions in response to the juror note. That doesn’t make the Supremes’ silence any less troubling. They had a chance to send a message that bigotry has no place in the jury room–and blew it.
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