Was a Gay Man from South Dakota Sentenced to Death for Fear He Would ‘Enjoy’ Prison?

Appeals for a death row inmate include claims of bias in a 1993 sentencing due to juror reaction over the defendant's homosexuality.

  • Published 25 June 2018

In June 2018, rumors spread on social media that a gay inmate from South Dakota had been sentenced to death by execution solely because a court deemed that he might find prison “too enjoyable”:

gay man south dakota

Readers forwarded screenshots of tweets or Facebook posts (as seen above) which rarely referenced identifying details of the case, such as the name of the condemned man or the timeline of his trial and sentencing. On social media, one popular tweet concluded with “USA 2018,” leading to the widespread interpretation the man had been sentenced to death in 2018.

Many news items about about the controversy were published in the opinion sections of newspapers, such as a 22 June 2018 Miami Herald piece titled “His crime was horrendous, but so was the reason jurors sentenced him to death. He’s gay.” That article opened with background about a 1992 homicide by stabbing and a subsequent criminal trial, during which defendant Charles Rhines was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death — with jurors reportedly handing down the harsh sentence because they “worried that, as a gay man, Rhines might enjoy prison”:

So it looks like Charles Rhines is going to executed — and it’s probably because he’s gay.

Well, not only that. There’s also the matter of his committing an especially heinous murder in 1992. Rhines, caught burglarizing a doughnut shop in Rapid City, South Dakota by an employee named Donnivan Schaeffer, stabbed the 22-year old in the abdomen and back. Then, as Schaeffer pleaded for his life, Rhines thrust the blade into the base of his skull.

Point being that this guy is no hero or martyr. He is undeserving of pity.

That said, the circumstances of his case — more specifically, his sentencing — ought to concern anyone who believes in equal justice under the law. It seems that, in deciding what sentence to impose — death or life without parole — jurors worried that, as a gay man, Rhines might enjoy prison. They thought condemning him to that all-male environment would be like the old folk tale about Br’er Rabbit tricking Br’er Fox into throwing him into the briar patch where he wanted to be all along.

So they gave him death.

A New York Times op-ed (“A Jury May Have Sentenced a Man to Death Because He’s Gay. And the Justices Don’t Care”) covered similar ground:

On [18 June 2018], the Supreme Court announced it would not stop South Dakota from killing a man who may have been sentenced to death because he is gay …

Some of the jurors who imposed the death penalty on Charles Rhines, who was convicted of murder, have said they thought the alternative — a life sentence served in a men’s prison — was something he would enjoy as a gay man.

During deliberations, the jury had often discussed the fact that Mr. Rhines was gay and there was “a lot of disgust” about it, one juror recalled in an interview, according to the court petition. Another said that jurors knew he was gay and “thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” A third recounted hearing that if the jury did not sentence Mr. Rhines to death, “if he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go.”

The justices rejected Mr. Rhines’s plea to hear his bias claim, allowing his death sentence to stand despite disturbing evidence that it may have been the result of anti-L.G.B.T. animus. As usual, the court gave no explanation for its decision not to review the case. But its silence sent a deeply troubling message about the value placed on the lives of L.G.B.T. people.

These anecdotes about juror sentiment appear to have been drawn from a May 2018 petition for a writ of certiorari based on the notion that “at least one juror relied on anti-gay stereotypes and animus to sentence [Rhines] to death”:

In Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855 (2017), this Court held that, “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule [under a state rule of evidence] give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.”

In the wake of Peña-Rodriguez, Charles Rhines, a gay man, sought to introduce in the South Dakota Supreme Court the statements of three of the jurors who had voted to sentence him to death. One juror stated that the jury “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Two other jurors indicated that another deliberating juror had said that locking Mr. Rhines up with other men for life imprisonment without parole “would be sending him where he wants to go,” and that there had been “lots of discussion of homosexuality” and “a lot of disgust.” The state court ruled that Peña-Rodriguez did not require its no-impeachment rule to give way.

The question presented is whether Peña-Rodriguez applies to Petitioner’s evidence that at least one juror relied on anti-gay stereotypes and animus to sentence him to death

Other articles noted that Rhines’ lawyers claimed that his sexuality was a factor in the Supreme Court’s decision not to review a sentencing appeal, not that it was necessarily the primary reason he was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder. (Each year, the Supreme Court is asked to review roughly 7,000 cases, of which 100 to 150, a mere 1.4 to 2 percent, are heard.)

Back in March 2012, the Rapid City Journal had reported that the prosecution had sought the death penalty for Rhines due to the severity of his crime:

Dennis Groff, who was the Pennington County state’s attorney at the time, charged Rhines with murder and first-degree burglary and made the decision to seek the death penalty.

No one involved in the case – Schaeffer’s family, investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys – will ever forget the case, Groff, said recently.

“It wasn’t just a murder case,” he said. “It was a horrible case…. What happened to Donnivan was atrocious.”

Rhines was not the first murderer Groff had sought the death penalty for, but he was Groff’s first successful death penalty case.

Whether Rhines will be successful in obtaining a review of his case, and whether he was sentenced to death (rather than a lesser punishment) solely or primarily because he was gay are questions that remain to be tested in the legal system.