South Dakota executed death row prisoner Charles Rhines on November 4, 2019, following unsuccessful litigation on multiple fronts. A South Dakota judge issued an execution warrant for Mr. Rhines in June 2019, on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to grant certiorari review of his claim that his jurors had sentenced him to death based on his sexual orientation. From 2016 to 2019, Mr. Rhines had attempted to obtain judicial review of that claim, armed with sworn statements from multiple jurors confirming this basis for their decision. However, state and federal courts repeatedly refused to grant him a hearing to determine whether his death sentence was constitutional in light of the new evidence.
By closing the prison doors in this context, a State risks rendering this fundamental process an empty ritual.
For the past year, Mr. Rhines’ legal teams raised a series of challenges. Pro bono counsel from the law firms of Ballard Spahr and Greenberg Traurig were granted a hearing in the state trial court on South Dakota’s execution method. Mr. Rhines’ team of federal defenders, meanwhile, challenged the decision of prison officials to refuse mental health experts access to evaluate Mr. Rhines for his clemency proceedings. Mr. Rhines’ attorneys contended that the experts were crucial to developing claims supporting his appeal for mercy, including his trauma following a sexual assault while in the military as a teenager. Both state and federal courts refused to order access for the experts, with the federal district court claiming it did not have jurisdiction to control the state clemency process. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently denied certiorari. Justice Sotomayor issued a statement respecting the denial, cautioning that “[b]y closing the prison doors in this context, a State risks rendering this fundamental process an empty ritual.”
In the days before Mr. Rhines’ execution, when all other legal avenues had been exhausted, Mr. Rhines’ legal team also filed an original habeas petition in the U.S. Supreme Court, attempting to raise the juror bias claim. The petition outlined the new evidence showing that jurors had decided that life in prison among other men would not serve as a punishment for Mr. Rhines because he was gay. Lower courts had repeatedly rejected the claim that using Mr. Rhines’ sexual orientation as a factor in sentencing him to death violated his due process and Eighth Amendment rights. Mr. Rhines asked the Court to exercise its jurisdiction to transfer the petition to the lower courts for a hearing, which it declined to do.
Mr. Rhines was the eighteenth person to be executed in 2019.