In America, It’s Okay to Sentence Someone to Death for Being Gay

The jurors had to choose between the death penalty and life in prison.

While struggling with their decision, they debated whether the defendant – a gay man – would enjoy being locked up with other men.

Some jurors said he probably would. So, they sentenced him to die.

The US Supreme Court cleared the way for South Dakota to execute Charles Rhines when it declined to hear his appeal of the sentence, in which Rhines argued that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury and sentenced to death based on his sexual orientation.

As usual, the court offered no explanation for its decision. But, the justices’ refusal to review the case came as a bitter disappointment for civil liberties and gay rights advocates, especially as it comes in the wake of another Supreme Court ruling in which a Latino man’s verdict was reversed because of the overt racial bias of a juror.

Why Was Rhines Sentenced to Death?

Rhines was convicted of first-degree murder more than 20 years ago after he killed a man who caught him robbing a doughnut shop, a crime he later confessed to.

During the trial, it wasn’t enough to punish him based on the crime that he committed – prosecutors made an issue of Rhines’ homosexuality, bringing in witnesses to offer sensational testimony about how uncomfortable his sexuality made them feel.

The jury found him guilty.

While deliberating what his sentence should be, jurors submitted a list of questions to the judge that seemed to raise concerns that life in prison would be more of a reward than a punishment for a gay man. The judge said he could not answer these kinds of questions, and the jury returned with the death sentence.

“A Lot of Disgust … “

Years later, several of the jurors in the case went public with claims that anti-gay bias tainted the sentencing decision. During deliberations, jurors expressed “a lot of disgust” over Rhines’ homosexuality, and one juror said, “if he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go.”

Based on this information, Rhines appealed. On the surface, it seemed like a slam-dunk case – Rhines’ attorneys argued that the sworn statements made by multiple jurors regarding anti-gay bias exposed a clear violation of the Sixth and 14th amendments’ guarantee of an impartial jury.

But, jury deliberations are intended to be confidential, and South Dakota has a “no-impeachment” rule that prohibits defendants from using any jury statements during deliberations to challenge their sentence. That’s why lower courts had upheld the sentence.

Rhines hoped for a different outcome from the US Supreme Court, which last year directly addressed “no-impeachment” rules in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado. In that case, the court carved out an exception to states’ “no-impeachment” rules when a juror makes a clear statement that racial bias played a role in determining a verdict.

Rhines’ attorneys argued that if racial bias overrides a state’s no-impeachment rules, then anti-gay bias should as well.

But, the high court refused to review the case and expand its ruling in Peña-Rodriguez to gay defendants.


Because it was a unanimous decision, the court’s refusal to review the case doesn’t appear to be ideological or political. Maybe the justices don’t want to stir things up too quickly – Peña-Rodriguez was a huge case that bucked legal precedent, and the always staid court may be hesitant to move too quickly in challenging the sacrosanct nature of jury deliberations.

Unfortunately, their cautious approach will cost Rhines his life, and may result in other homosexuals being convicted or killed by homophobic juries…

SC Criminal Defense Attorney in Columbia, Lexington, and Myrtle Beach

SC criminal defense lawyer Lacey Thompson defends clients against criminal charges in SC courts.

If you have been charged with a crime in South Carolina, call the Thompson Defense Firm now at 843-444-6122 or send us an email to find out how we can help.

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