The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday it won’t hear a case contesting the death penalty of gay man in South Dakota despite evidence suggesting the jury invoked the punishment based on his sexual orientation.
Without explanation, the Supreme Court announced in an order list it wouldn’t hear the petition filed by a public defender in February on behalf of Charles Rhines, who’s been on death row for 22 years and sought to have his penalty reviewed.
The order list reflects decisions justices at a conference on a previous Friday. It takes a vote of at least four justices to agree to grant a writ certiorari, or take up a petition, but that vote isn’t made public.
Among the groups that filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take up Rhines’ case to reverse his penalty was the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.
Daniel Harawa, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, said in a statement the refusal to hear the case “defies Constitutional protections and breaks with Supreme Court precedent.”
“Bias of any kind has no place in the jury box, especially in a death penalty case where the Eighth Amendment’s protections against the arbitrary imposition of a capital sentence is implicated,” Harawa said. “The Supreme Court is uniquely empowered to eradicate discrimination from the jury system, and this disappointing decision undermines public confidence in the administration of justice and the rule of law.”
According to briefs filed before the Supreme Court, jurors in Rhines’ case signed an affidavit suggesting anti-gay stereotypes and biases played out in deliberations.
The juror said that Rhines were gay, jurors would “be sending him where he wants to go” if they voted to send him to jail. Another juror recalled during deliberations “lots of discussion of homosexuality” and “a lot of disgust.”
Another friend-of-the-court brief was filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota, GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National LGBT Bar Association.
Ria Tabacco Mar, attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV project, expressed indignation with the Supreme Court on Twitter for refusing to review Rhines’ case.
“No one should be sentenced to death because of their sexual orientation,” Mar wrote. “The Supreme Court’s silence in the face of explicit, anti-gay bias sends a deeply disturbing message about the value placed on LGBTQ lives.”
Rhines was convicted of first-degree murder in 1993 for the murder of Donnivan Schaeffer. Rhines was burglarizing Dig ‘Em Donuts in Rapid City, South Dakota, a shop from which he had been fired from the month before when Schaeffer walked in the establishment. Rhines later confessed to killing her. The South Dakota Supreme Court had already affirmed Rhines’ conviction and death penalty in 1996.
South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who filed a petition before the Supreme Court urging justices not to take up the case, said in a statement the court made the right decision.
“This decision moves this case just that much closer to justice for Donnivan Schaeffer and his family,” Ravnsborg said. “The jurors conducted their deliberations fully aware of the full ramifications of their decision and with the knowledge that defendants should be punished for the crime they committed and not for who they are.”
There’s recent precedent for the Supreme Court to reverse the death penalty for an convicted person as a result of bias found in the jury. In 2017, the Supreme Court reversed the death penalty of Duane Buck after the defendant’s attorney introduced evidence that suggested the defendant was more likely to commit violent acts in the future because he’s black.
Also in 2017, the Supreme Court determined in the case of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado the Sixth Amendment requires a racial bias exception to the no-impeachment rule, which normally asserts testimony from jurors about what occurred during jury deliberation may not be used to impeach a verdict during appeal.
Under this precedent, Rhines sought to reverse his death penalty conviction. However, a district court ruled Rhines’ motion constituted an unauthorized “second or successive” habeas petition. The court then declined to issue a certificate of appealability, as did the majority of a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit last year.
The denial of certiorari from the Supreme Court marks the end of the road for Rhines in his effort to overturn his death penalty conviction.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by the anti-LGBT legal group Liberty Counsel seeking to challenge New Jersey’s ban on “ex-gay” conversion therapy for youth. The rejection marks the fifth time he Supreme Court has refused to hear a case challenging a ban on the widely discredited practice.