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SCOTUS denies appeal for gay inmate on death row

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Charles Rhines

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has denied an appeal from a gay inmate on death row who may have been sentenced because of homophobic opinions of the jury.

Charles Rhines, who was sentenced in 1993 for murder, had his appeal reach SCOTUS on Friday, April 12. On Monday, his attorneys said the court had denied his petition for certiorari.

“As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an earlier case, ‘[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.’ New evidence – which has never been heard by any court — shows that some of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Rhines to death did so because of who he was, not for what he did,” said Shawn Nolan,  Rhines’s attorney. “The new juror statements show that some jurors, because they knew Mr. Rhines was a gay man, thought that he would enjoy life in prison with other men and it would not serve as a sufficient punishment. The jurors’ anti-gay bias deprived Mr. Rhines of his right to a fair sentencing process under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

“The Supreme Court has previously held that states must consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or prejudice in convicting a defendant. (Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado 2017) This precedent should be applied to Mr. Rhines’s case to invalidate his death sentence. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund made clear in its amicus brief on behalf of Mr. Rhines, both racial prejudice and anti-gay prejudice have no place in the criminal justice system. Both undermine public confidence in the fairness of the system, particularly when jurors must decide between life imprisonment and death.”

Rhines legal team sought a Certificate of Appealability, an order that allows a prisoner to appeal from a denial of a writ of habeas corpus. They argued that reasonable jurists could debate whether 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 the lower courts had jurisdiction to consider that evidence.

The legal team 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].”

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