Supreme Court Denies Review in Case Raising Anti-Gay BiasApril 15, 2019

The Supreme Court today denied review in the case of Charles Rhines, a South Dakota man who argued that anti-gay prejudice influenced his jury's decision to sentence him to death.

Jurors who convicted Mr. Rhines and sentenced him to death in 1993 later admitted in sworn statements that during their deliberations about whether to sentence Mr. Rhines to life imprisonment or death, there had been "lots of discussion of homosexuality" and "a lot of disgust."

One juror who had voted for death stated that "we also knew that [Mr. Rhines] was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison." And another juror indicated about deliberations: "One juror made . . . a comment that if he's gay, we'd be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for [life imprisonment without the possibility of parole]."

At trial, jurors sent the judge a note with questions about whether, if they imposed a life sentence, Mr. Rhines would be allowed to "mix with the general inmate population[,]" "create a group of followers or admirers[,]" "discuss, d[e]scribe or brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and[/]or young men jailed for lesser crimes . . . [,]" "marry or have conjugal visits[,]" or "be jailed alone or . . . have a cellmate."

Mr. Rhines argued on appeal that the note showed that anti-gay prejudice had improperly influenced the jury's sentencing decision, but the state courts denied relief.

In 2015, new counsel appointed in federal court began interviewing jurors for the first time and obtained the sworn statements.

Jurors' statements about deliberations typically cannot be used in court, but the Supreme Court in 2017 made an exception "where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant." 

Mr. Rhines argued this exception should apply to his jurors' statements expressing anti-gay bias in the decision to impose the death penalty, but the federal courts refused to consider the statements on procedural grounds.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Mr. Rhines argued that "[a]nti-gay bias, if left unaddressed, risks systemic harm to the justice system and, in particular, capital jury sentencing."

Indeed, researchers at UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute have found significant prejudice against gay people in the justice system. They wrote:

In 2017, we analyzed federal data and found that LGB people were three times more likely than straight people to be held in prisons and jails. Another study found that nearly three-fifths of girls in juvenile detention facilities identify as lesbian, bisexual, or not completely straight. Both studies also found that LGB people receive more severe punishments, reflected in longer prison and jail terms, compared with straight inmates.

The Court summarily denied review this morning.