Civil rights orgs urge court to accept appeal of man who may have received death sentence because he’s gay

ST. LOUIS — Six civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, Lambda Legal, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National LGBT Bar Association, filed an amici brief today urging the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the appeal of Charles Rhines, a gay man on death row in South Dakota, according to a press release.

According to the filing, new evidence “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. In other words, significant evidence suggests that the jury may have sentenced Rhines to death based not on the facts of his case, but because he is gay.”

“Mr. Rhines’s case represents one of the most extreme forms anti-LGBT bias can take. Evidence suggests that he has been on death row for the past 25 years because he is a gay man. The constitutional right to a fair trial must include the right to establish whether a verdict or sentence was imposed due to jury bias,” said Lambda Legal Fair Courts Project Attorney Ethan Rice said in the press release.

The amicus brief can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/y8eslggc. Rhines’s Application for Certificate of Appealability can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/y778msudand its exhibits at https://tinyurl.com/y8bz8jor.

During jury deliberations, according to the release, the jury sent a note to the judge that indicated that Rhines’s status as a gay man had become a focal point for deliberations. The note asked whether, if sentenced to life without parole, Rhines would “be allowed to mix with the general inmate population,” be able to “brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and/or young men,” enjoy “conjugal visits” and asked other questions about Rhines’s access to other men while in prison.

The new evidence comes in the form of three statements from jurors who served at Rhines’s capital trial and sentencing. One juror stated that the jury “knew that [Rhines] was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Another juror recalled a juror commenting that “if he’s gay we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life without parole].” A third juror confirmed that “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality. There was a lot of disgust.”

The new evidence confirms what the jury’s note strongly indicated at the time of Rhines’s sentencing: anti-gay bias played a role in some jurors’ decisions to impose the death penalty.

The brief of the amici documents America’s long and painful history of discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, which persisted at the time of trial and continues in the present day. The amici wrote to the court: “Well into the twentieth century, gay people were ‘prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate.’”

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