May 10, 2019 U.S. Supreme Court News

SCOTUS Declines to Review Death Sentence Imposed Based on the Defendant’s Sexual Orientation

Callie Heller, Staff Attorney

On April 15, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case of South Dakota death row prisoner Charles Rhines. During Rhines’ 1993 trial in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the State’s guilt-phase case included evidence about the defendant’s sexual orientation. As the jurors deliberated, they sent a note to the judge with questions such as whether Rhines would be allowed to marry or have conjugal visits. The judge responded that he could not provide them with any additional information, and less than eight hours later, the jury returned a death sentence.

Juror declarations that Rhines has obtained in the past few years have confirmed the role that bias played in the jury room. Jurors provided sworn statements in which they stated that, due to Rhines’ sexual orientation, they had decided that life in prison among other men would not serve as a punishment for him. They also expressed general homophobic views and the “disgust” felt by the “farming community.”

Rhines has so far been denied a hearing in state or federal court and his claim encountered significant procedural obstacles. No defense attorney attempted to speak with the jurors about the note until April 2015. In 2016, the district court denied Rhines’ initial federal habeas petition, and Rhines’ team, with two new juror declarations in hand, moved to alter that judgment. Also in 2016, the Supreme Court granted certiorari review in Pena-Rodriguez, which asked whether the Sixth Amendment’s impartial jury guarantee trumps the usual impenetrability of jury deliberations when a juror indicates that racial bias contributed to a guilt phase verdict. Despite the relevance of that case, the district court declined Rhines’ request to wait for the Court’s decision before ruling and denied the motion to alter its judgment.

By March 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled in the petitioner’s favor in Pena-Rodriguez, and Rhines had obtained additional juror statements demonstrating bias. That year, Rhines tried to apply that decision to his own case in both state and federal court. In the state system, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that Pena-Rodriguez did not apply to juror bias based on sexual orientation. In 2018, the Supreme Court denied Rhines’ certiorari petition based on the state decision. Rhines had also moved to amend his habeas petition in the district court with his new evidence, but the court ruled that his motion for amendment was instead a second federal habeas petition, which it lacked jurisdiction to consider without appellate authorization. The Eighth Circuit denied a certificate of appealability. 

The South Dakota Attorney General, in its response to Rhines’ certiorari petition, argued that Pena-Rodriguez shouldn’t apply to a case like Rhines’ because “sexual orientation is not immutable to the same extent as race.” 

Callie Heller, Staff Attorney