Gay man sentenced to death by ‘homophobic’ jury should have chance to appeal, ACLU argues to court

Six civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have urged the Eighth Circuit Court to hear the appeal of Charles Rhines, a gay man on death row.

Rhines was convicted in 1993 for stabbing a doughnut shop employee during a robbery in South Dakota the previous year, but evidence suggests the jury’s decision to sentence him to death instead of life in prison was motivated by homophobia.

According to the civil rights organisation’s brief, a note the jury had sent during deliberation to the sentencing judge inquired about what life imprisonment would mean for Rhines.

Specifically, the jury had asked whether he’d be in proximity of other men, whether he’d be allowed to mix with the general population, and whether he’d have a cellmate.

“[The note] 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,” the brief read.

Rhines’ lawyers had petitioned for a reduction in his sentence, citing a 2017 Supreme Court ruling which mandated that states must consider jury bias on the basis of race.

The lawyers argued that this could also apply to bias based on sexual orientation, but their appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in June, meaning that the 60-year-old would now have to face execution.

(Flickr/bloomsberries) gavel

Rhines was convicted in 1993 for stabbing a doughnut shop employee during a robbery (Flickr/bloomsberries)

Ría Tabacco Mar, a lawyer for the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, condemned the decision in the New York Times, calling it “alarming.”

“It’s difficult to square allowing the state to execute Mr. Rhines because of his sexual orientation with the Supreme Court’s observation this month that states should prevent the harms of discrimination against LGBT people,” she wrote, adding: “And while bias in the criminal justice system is not always explicit, it was in Mr. Rhines’s case. That makes the court’s decision not to step in even more alarming.”

Bar was one of the signatories of the civil rights organisations’ brief. “This Court should issue a certificate of appealability to afford Mr. Rhines the opportunity to establish whether bias based on his sexual orientation was a motivation for the jury to sentence him to death,” the brief concluded.

Rhines’ case was sadly not unique. A gay man who was convicted for murder was also sentenced to death in 1984 in Texas because the prosecutor argued that “sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn’t a very bad punishment for a homosexual.” However, the case of Calvin Burdine became better known for his lawyer falling asleep repeatedly during the trial rather than the homophobic climate in the courtroom. Burdine was eventually granted a retrial, where he pled guilty to murder an received three life sentences in prison.