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SCOTUS may hear appeal for gay man on death row

Court may rule on if anti-LGBTQ jury bias was behind a gay man’s death sentence.

Charles Rhines

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court this week could rule if a jury sentenced Charles Rhines to death because he’s gay.

The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals denied Rhines’s appeal in September. Six 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 a friend-of-the-court brief in August following the discovery of comments from jurors suggesting that sentencing Rhines to life in prison with other men would be “sending him where he wants to go.”

Rhines appealed the ruling to SCOTUS in February asking the Court to review his case after the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to do so by a two-to-one vote, according to a release from the lawyers representing him. Last week, amicus briefs were filed in support of Rhines by several of the country¹s leading civil rights organizations, including NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, among others. Forty-seven law professors also filed a brief in support of Rhines, his legal team said.

Rhines legal team has sought a Certificate of Appealability, an order that allows a prisoner to appeal from a denial of a writ of habeas corpus. They argue that reasonable jurists could debate whether (1) he made a substantial showing of a violation of his right to an impartial jury with evidence that at least one juror relied on anti-gay stereotypes and animus in sentencing him to death, and (2) the lower courts had jurisdiction to consider that evidence. 

The legal team has said there is new evidence shows that jurors who sentenced him to death ³knew that Rhines was gay and thought that “he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Another juror recalled a juror commenting that “if he¹s gay, we¹d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life without parole].”

Rhines was convicted of murder in 1993 in South Dakota.

In 2017, in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court held that states must consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or prejudice in convicting a defendant. The legal team is arguing that the rationale of Pena-Rodriguez should apply to his case to invalidate his death sentence. As the amicus brief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund points out, “verdicts infected by anti-gay bias, like verdicts infected by racial bias, cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury¹s deliberations and resulting verdict.”

  • The Amicus Brief of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. in Support of Petitioner can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/y5u9n8rb
  • The Amicus Brief of American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of South Dakota, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., National Center for Lesbian Rights, and National LGBT Bar Association in Support of Petitioner can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/yxapqnm7
  • The Amicus Brief of Forty-Seven Law Professors who Teach Evidence and Criminal Procedure in Support of Petitioner can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/y4cetsdd 

Rhines’s legal team expects his appeal to be conferenced by SCOTUS on Friday, April 12.

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