In 1993, a now 60-year-old gay man named Charles Rhines (above) tied up a man and stabbed him to death while robbing a South Dakota donut shop. And while that’s horrible, there’s also proof that the jury who sentenced Rhines to death did so because they thought he’d enjoy prison too much. Y’know, because prison is like gay summer camp with lots of naked showering and nonstop anal sex (except it’s really not… not at all). Now, Rhines’ lawyer has appealed the death sentence all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, the Court is expected to announce whether or not they’ll consider his case.
In their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Charles Rhines’ lawyers say that jurors in the original case submitted questions to the judge during the sentencing phase, questions like whether Rhines would have a cellmate, be allowed conjugal visits, create a group of “admirers” or brag about his crime to “young men.”
Rhines’ lawyers also claimed to have interviewed a few of the jurors who say that Rhines’ sexual orientation came up several times and played a key role when jurors were deliberating his sentencing.
If the U.S. Supreme Court takes up Rhines’ appeal, they won’t be reconsidering whether Rhines is guilty or whether his trial was fair, but whether his sentence should stand seeing as it was motivated by anti-gay bias. (That is, if Rhines were straight, they wouldn’t have sentenced him to die.)
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jury decisions declaring people guilty should be invalidated if evidence exists that racial bias shaped their decision-making. Thus, Rhines’ lawyers hope that this reasoning will extend to sexual orientation too.
In the state’s counter-petition, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley basically argues that gay people aren’t a legally protected social class, like black people, mostly because they haven’t historically been subject to the same sorts of discrimination, but that’s untrue. Gay people have been systematically denied rights and humane treatment in every level of American government throughout history.
Basically, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to whether homophobia, like racism, has prevented gay people from receiving fair treatment in the American legal system. If they take up the case, it could be groundbreaking.
Update (5/18/18): The Supreme Court has refused to hear his case, in essence saying that homophobia didn’t prevent Rhines from receiving a fair sentencing.