Claims that US man was sentenced to death “for being gay”

Charles Rhines

American civil rights groups say that a gay man found guilty of murder may have been sentenced to death because jurors felt he would “enjoy” spending life in prison too much.

The six organisations, including Lambda Legal, have filed an amici brief urging the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the appeal of Charles Rhines, who is on death row in South Dakota.

Rhines was found guilty of murdering a 22-year-old employee named Donnivan Schaeffer while burgling a doughnut store in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1992. In his trial, jurors had the option to sentence him to life in prison without parole or sentence him to death. Lambda Legal says that jurors chose the latter because Rhines is gay.

According to the court filing, new evidence “suggests that at least some members of the jury accepted the notion that life in prison without parole would be fun for a gay person – so much so that they felt it was necessary to impose the death penalty instead.”

Lambda Legal argues that, “in other words, significant evidence suggests that the jury may have sentenced Mr. Rhines to death based not on the facts of his case, but because he is gay.”

“Mr. Rhines’ case represents one of the most extreme forms anti-LGBT bias can take,” said Lambda Legal Fair Courts Project Attorney Ethan Rice. “Evidence suggests that he has been on death row for the past 25 years because he is a gay man. The constitutional right to a fair trial must include the right to establish whether a verdict or sentence was imposed due to jury bias.”

During their deliberations in Rhines’ case, the jury sent a note to the judge indicating that their discussions had become infected with anti-gay stereotypes and prejudices. The judge failed to head off the anti-gay bias, says Lambda Legal, and the jury went on to sentence Rhines to death.

The new evidence comes in the form of three statements from jurors who served at Rhines’ trial and sentencing. One juror stated that the jury “knew that [Rhines] was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Another juror recalled a juror commenting that “if he’s gay we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life without parole].”

A third juror added that “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality. There was a lot of disgust.” Lambda Legal said that the new evidence “confirms what the jury’s note strongly indicated at the time of Rhines’s sentencing: anti-gay bias played a role in some jurors’ decisions to impose the death penalty.”

Rhines’ attorneys believe that the courts should allow him the opportunity to present the new evidence that anti-gay bias was a factor in some jurors’ decisions to sentence him to death. “The need for review is especially compelling because the anti-gay bias in Mr. Rhines’s case may have made the difference between life and death,” said Lambda Legal.

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