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How A Gay Man's Execution Forced An Examination Of Anti-LGBTQ Bias Among Juries

After Charles Rhines, a gay man, was convicted of murder, jurors weighing a death sentence argued that sending him to prison for life would have been “sending him where he wants to go” because of all the men there.

A police handout of Charles Rhines

Advocates around the country are fighting jury discrimination after one man’s sexuality was a contributing factor in his 2019 execution.

Charles Rhines confessed to murdering 22-year-old Donnivan Schaefer during a 1992 burglary in South Dakota. The defendant went to a Rapid City doughnut shop — from which he’d been fired weeks earlier — forced Schaefer into a storeroom, tied him up and stabbed him repeatedly in the stomach, according to CBS News.

The controversy in Rhines’ case came during the sentencing phase of his 1993 murder trial, when jurors were left to decide between a sentence of life in prison or death by execution. 

He received the death penalty — in part because the men and women tasked with deciding his fate said that life imprisonment would be “sending him where he wants to go" and something that Rhines would “enjoy” as a gay man, according to the ACLU and Lambda Legal.

According to the ACLU, one juror claimed there was “a lot of disgust” about Rhines’ admitted homosexuality.

Ethan Rice, senior attorney for the Lambda Legal Fair Courts Project, helped take Rhines' ultimately unsuccessful appeal of his sentence all the way to the Supreme Court.

“His attorney, back in 1993, did ask jurors in the initial phases of the trial — when jury selection was happening — whether or not any of the jurors held any anti-gay bias,” Rice told Oxygen.com. “And the jurors all said ‘no.’”

But, Rice said, during sentencing deliberation, jurors sent the judge a note asking strange questions about what life in prison would look like for Rhines, such as, "Would he have a cellmate?" and "Would he be permitted to have conjugal visits?" (At the time, South Dakota had not formally banned same-sex marriages, though it had also not performed any. The state did ban same-sex marriage in 1996 and passed a constitutional amendment against it in 2006. Both were struck down by the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages in 2015, though the constitutional amendment remains on the books.)

“A judge couldn’t answer these questions, but I think that signaled to Charles’ attorneys in 1993 that that was unusual,” said Rice. “It seemed pointed to him being in close contact with men.”

Supporters and many legal experts argued that the decision to sentence Rhines to death was a violation of the Sixth Amendment, since Rhines didn’t receive a fair sentencing hearing because he was gay.

“Fundamentally, it’s unfair —and it’s unconstitutional — for someone to be sentenced for their personal characteristics that don’t have anything to do with the commission of the crime, including race, origin, and sexual orientation,” said Rice. “It was important to say, ‘Hey, anti-gay bias can’t stand as a reason to send someone to the death penalty.’”

Decades later, attorneys armed themselves with the statements of several jurors on Rhines’ trial, confirming that the defendant’s sexuality was a determining factor in their decision, according to the American Bar Association

Numerous appeals on that basis, in both state and federal courts, were denied between 2016 and 2019 — including a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rhines v. Young, backed by large LGBTQ+ organizations like the ACLU, the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association, Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign.

In traditional cases, jurors are prohibited from testifying about their courtroom deliberations after reaching a verdict — a law known as the no-impeachment rule — which could include biased opinions. Lawyers supported their argument for Rhines’ appeals by referencing the Supreme Court's 2017 decision in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, which served as an exception to the no-impeachment rule when involving racial bias in juries.

But the U.S. Supreme Court denied to hear his appeal on April 15, 2019, according to the American Bar Association.

Rhines’ attorneys tried for several further appeals of the sentence, including challenging the state’s use of pentobarbital in their lethal injection concoctions (which arguably works slower than other fast-acting poisons) and the defendant being denied access to mental health evaluations while behind bars. The courts declined to uphold them all.

Charles Rhines died by lethal injection on November 4, 2019.

“I was extremely disappointed; I don’t know if I was incredibly surprised,” Rice told Oxygen.com. “I’d been hopeful there would have been a different outcome.”

Ethan Rice

When asked by Oxygen.com what people could do to help remove anti-gay bias from juries around the country, Rice said it was important that people take personal inventory.

“All of us citizens might be called to be jurors at some point,” said Rice. “One thing people can do is really take stock of what their beliefs are and what they’re bringing in. Be as honest as possible when questioned about potential biases.”

Lambda Legal is the oldest and largest national legal organization for LGBTQ+ civil rights. More information about their non-profit group can be found on their website, highlighting other legal cases involving the rights of LGBTQ+ people. The organization says more can be learned about LGBTQ+ community, as well as those living with HIV, by taking their “Protected & Served?” survey, which can be filled out here.

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