Was a South Dakota man sentenced to death because some jurors thought life in a male prison might be enjoyable for a gay man?

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In Rhines v. Young, Charles Russel Rhines, who was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder and third-degree burglary by a jury that recommended imposition of the death penalty in January 1993, tried to get the district court in a habeas corpus proceeding to consider evidence that the jury was biased against him because he is gay, and that this heavily factored into the jury’s decision to recommend the death penalty.

He has juror affidavits to that effect. For a variety of complex reasons relating to federal procedure, U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier found in her May 25 ruling that she was without jurisdiction to consider the merits of his claim. Rhines also has an appeal from prior habeas%rejections pending before the 8th Circuit. And, always a long shot, but he also has a petition for certiorari pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rhines v. State of South Dakota, Case, arguing that the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, provides a basis for reopening his case to consider this evidence.

The South Dakota Supreme Court rejected his motion to this effect, providing the procedural basis for this attempted appeal. In Pena-Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that the normal refusal of courts to inquire into the substance of jury deliberations must give way to evidence that the jurors relied on racial stereotypes or animus in their deliberations. Rhines’ evidence goes directly to the death penalty verdict, including sworn statements by some of the jurors that they were aware Rhines was gay and they did not want to send him to live in all-male general population prison setting where he would get lots of gay sex and sexually corrupt straight prisoners, so they recommended the death penalty.

The South Dakota Supreme Court, relying on pre-Pena-Rodriguez precedents, held that statements by jurors during voir dire that they could be fair to the defendant despite his sexual orientation were sufficient to reject any argument the jury was biased. With the state having filed its response to the Petition and Rhines’ public defender lawyers having filed replies to the state filing and updated the record before the Court to include reference to Judge Schreier’s opinion, the record has been distributed to the Justices and listed for consideration at their June 14 conference.

You can read more about how Pena-Rodriguez can and should be extended to bar homophobia and transphobia in the courts here.

You can read more about the Rhines case here.

By Arthur S. Leonard. This article appeared in LGBT Bar NY’s LGBT Law Notes. Subscribe here!

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