Charles Rhines was burglarizing a Rapid City, S.D., doughnut shop from which he had been fired a month earlier when a worker walked in. Rhines stabbed the man to death, and a jury convicted him in 1993 of first-degree murder.
When called upon to recommend death or life in prison, though, the jurors had a lot of unusual questions. If they sentenced Rhines to life in prison, they asked the judge during deliberations, would he be able to mix with the rest of the prisoners, “create a group of followers or admirers,” have access to “new and/or young men jailed for lesser crimes” or be housed alone or with a roommate?
Why did they ask such questions? Rhines is gay, and, as one of the jurors later said, they wondered whether if in sentencing him to life in prison “we’d be sending him where he wants to go.” So they sentenced him to death instead.
Note that the life-or-death sentencing decision doesn’t appear to have been based on the particulars of the crime, but on who Rhines is and on jurors’ prejudices about gay men — beliefs that only one of the 12 had acknowledged during jury selection (the biased juror promised to set those views aside). Yet a juror later recalled “lots of discussion of homosexuality” in the jury room. “There was a lot of disgust.”
Rhines’ attorneys did not discover much of this evidence until after his appeals had been heard and rejected by federal courts. On Friday, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take his case, reverse those rulings and give Rhines a chance to present the new evidence he’s found about anti-gay statements in the jury room. The court should do all of that. That Rhines is fighting the imposition of a death sentence, rather than the addition of a few years to a prison term, makes the repercussions of possible discrimination all the more outrageous.