Supreme Court won't hear case of death-row inmate who claimed jurors were homophobic

Defense lawyers said jurors knew that Charles Rhines was gay and thought "he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison."

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the appeal of a South Dakota man who claimed that anti-gay juror bias put him on death row.

"Charles Rhines is a gay man, and the jurors at his capital trial knew it," his lawyers said in urging the court to take up the case. But prosecutors said it was the brutal nature of the crime that led the jury to impose a death sentence, not his sexual orientation.

During trial deliberations, jurors sent a note to the judge asking whether a life sentence would allow Rhines to mix with the general inmate population, brag about his crime to young inmates, or have a cellmate. Defense lawyers said jurors contacted years later said they knew Rhines was gay and some thought "he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison."

South Dakota death row inmate Charles Rhines is shown in this 1990s photo, in Rapid City, South Dakota.Rapid City Journal / AP file

Comments by jurors during deliberations are normally off limits, and state and federal rules prohibit judges from hauling jurors back into court to explain their verdicts. But in 2017 the Supreme Court said exceptions must be made in cases where there's evidence that racial bias affected the verdict.

"Blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases," the court held, despite the general rule of jury secrecy.

Lawyers for Rhines said that same rule should apply in cases of anti-gay juror bias. They cited statements made by jurors in the case that a life sentence would be "sending him where he wants to go." Another was quoted as saying: "There was a lot of disgust. This is a farming community."

But prosecutors said those statements gathered by defense lawyers years after the trial were unreliable. The juror who said Rhines might be locked up with other men meant it as a joke but immediately admitted it was "stupid," the state's legal brief said.

The Supreme Court's 2017 ruling on racial bias in deliberations did not apply to claims of bias based on sexual orientation, the prosecutors argued.

The state also said the jury reached its verdict after learning the details of the 1992 murder. Rhines was burglarizing a donut shop when 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer, who worked there after hours, came in. Rhines stabbed him in the abdomen and back. As Schaeffer begged for his life, Rhines drove the knife into the base of his skull.

Sentenced to death in 1993, Rhines is now 61 and has waged a long legal battle. His current lawyers wanted the South Dakota courts to consider the possibility of anti-gay bias and to order a new sentencing hearing.