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Supremes Won't Hear Appeal of Gay Man's Death Sentence

Supreme Court

Lawyers for convicted murderer Charles Rhines say jurors sentenced him to death rather than life in prison because they thought he'd enjoy imprisonment.

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday once again declined to hear the appeal of a gay man who contended that homophobia figured in a jury's decision to sentence him to death rather than life in prison for a murder conviction.

The high court declined, without comment, to hear Charles Rhines's appeal of his sentence, the Washington Blade reports. He was sentenced to death in 1993 for the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer, an employee of a Rapid City, S.D., doughnut shop Rhines was in the process of robbing. Rhines, who had formerly worked at the shop, was going through a desk in the office after business hours, looking for money, when Schaeffer, a courier, interrupted him. Rhines stabbed Schaeffer to death. Rhines has avoided execution through a series of appeals.

Lawyers for Rhines later discovered that while discussing what sentence to impose on him, jurors expressed disgust with homosexuality and said Rhines would likely enjoy being in prison. "There was lots of discussion of homosexuality," one juror recalled in a court affidavit. "There were lots of folks who were like, 'Ew, I can't believe that.'" Another said the jury thought Rhines "shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison." According to a third, a fellow juror said that sentencing Rhines to life in prison would amount to "sending him where he wants to go."

Comments by jurors are generally inadmissible in court, but in 2017 the Supreme Court said there could be exceptions, such as in cases where jurors showed racial bias. In filing the appeal, Rhines's lawyers said antigay prejudice should be treated in the same way.

Several civil rights groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Rhines, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, and Lambda Legal. Forty-seven law professors also filed a brief. "Verdicts infected by anti-gay bias, like verdicts infected by racial bias, 'cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury's deliberations and resulting verdict,'" the NAACP LDF wrote in its brief, quoting Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the 2017 case involving racial bias.

Rhines's attorney Shawn Nolan also invoked this case in a statement reacting to the high court's denial. "The Supreme Court has previously held that states must consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or prejudice in convicting a defendant," he said. This precedent should be applied to Mr. Rhines's case to invalidate his death sentence. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund made clear in its amicus brief on behalf of Mr. Rhines, both racial prejudice and antigay prejudice have no place in the criminal justice system. Both undermine public confidence in the fairness of the system, particularly when jurors must decide between life imprisonment and death."

The Supreme Court had denied an appeal from Rhines once before, in June of last year. That was an appeal based on state court rulings; the second appeal request came after Rhines's lawyers had gone through lower federal courts.

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