Where can being gay get you killed by your government? In the list of countries with an absolute disdain for civil liberties, you will find the usual suspects. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Brunei, with its new stoning law
for homosexual acts, all spring to mind. But as shocking as it may sound, it appears the United States may soon be joining that list in a roundabout way.
While the conversation on LGBTQ rights has recently centered around chicken sandwiches (some cities have attempted to ban Chick-fil-A restaurants over the company’s donations to organizations that work against same-sex marriage), there’s a bigger problem brewing beneath the headlines.
The case of Charles Rhines, a man on South Dakota’s death row, has been quietly working its way through the courts since 1992. What makes Rhines’ case exceptional is the reason his jury chose to sentence him to death rather than life in prison without the possibility of parole. That reason being that he is a gay man.
Like many on the right, I used to roll my eyes when I heard these types of statements. They always sounded like an excuse to me, a last-ditch effort to excuse horrible behavior and attempt to obtain a lesser sentence. But I assure you, in this case, he really was sentenced to death because he is gay.
The crime occurred in a rural farm town — the type that is unaccustomed to an openly gay person in its midst, especially in 1992. The jury members assigned to Rhines’ trial were highly biased against and uneducated about people who are gay, a fact that they brazenly broadcast in multiple ways.
Essentially, the jurors were convinced that sending a gay man to prison for the rest of his life would be giving him an environment that he would enjoy — confined living with other men. During deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge asking if Rhines could ever marry, have conjugal visits, have a cellmate, or be included in the general housing population were he to be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
After he received a death sentence, several of the jurors issued sworn declarations admitting that homophobia affected their decision and detailing the conversations among jurors during deliberations. In these statements, the jurors confess that they were aware of Rhines’ sexual orientation and that they felt he should not be able to spend his life with men in prison. One juror commented, “If he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for life without parole.”
Another juror stated, “There was lots of discussion of homosexuality. There was a lot of disgust. This is a farming community…There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’”
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must consider evidence that jurors relied on racial stereotypes or prejudice in convicting a defendant (Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado). In its opinion, the court held that “racial bias in the justice system must be addressed—including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered—(it) is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.” By this same reasoning, sentences based on sexual orientation bias should also be held unconstitutional, and Rhines’ sentence should be thrown out.
As it stands, Rhines has filed a request for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on these grounds. We should all be paying close attention to what happens next.
Either our justice system is rooted in the premises of equal justice and fairness, or it is not. No person should be sentenced based on their race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, or the location of a crime.
We already know that these factors are in actuality the largest determinates in sentencing for capital cases. The majority of death penalty cases come from only 2 percent of all U.S. counties, and all executions since reinstatement originated in fewer than 16 percent of counties. After one’s location, a defendant’s financial capacity to hire a good attorney, followed by the race of the victim, are the next largest determinates in sentencing. The death penalty is highly arbitrary and has a long history of bias. While data proves this to be true, rarely are elements of bias so clearly visible as they are in Rhines’ case.
No matter one’s stance on the death penalty in general, I think all Americans can agree that the government should not be able to kill someone because of whom they choose to love. The fact that these types of cases continue to end up in the eleventh hour of the legal system should be evidence to most that the government is incapable of carrying out a fair legal system and therefore should not be given the power over life and death.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.