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Was Gay Man's Death Sentence Due to His Sexuality?

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jun 13, 2018

Lawyers for a man on death row for a murder he committed a quarter century ago allege that jurors handed down a death sentence because they imagined he would like living among other men in a prison environment, according to a story posted at The Marshall Project.

The article notes that during the trial of gay convicted killer Charles Rhines in 1993, jurors sent the judge a series of written questions that seemed to hint at the idea that a gay man would actually enjoy spending his life in confinement because it would be with other men. Years later, Rhines' lawyers questioned some of those jurors and confirmed their suspicions: Some of them had assumed that prison would be a gay man's paradise.

One juror said that there had been "lots of discussion of homosexuality," while another said that the jurors were aware that Rhines was gay and "thought that he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison." Still, another reported that one juror argued a prison sentence would mean "sending him where he wants to go."

A comprehensive story about the crime that landed Rhines in jail appeared at the Argus Leader, which recounted how Rhines was in the midst of robbing a donut shop when a courier named Donnivan Schaeffer happened upon him in the act. Rhines had been searching for a desk in the office, looking for money when Schaeffer entered the office. Rhines attacked Schaeffer with a knife, wounding him with two stab wounds, the Argus Leader said; Rhines then took Schaeffer to a storeroom. Schaeffer begged for Rhines to call an ambulance, but instead, Rhines plunged the knife into Schaeffer's head.

Rhines acknowledges having killed the young man, and says that he has reflected on the loss he caused Schaefer's family - but he contends that his sexuality is the reason for his death sentence, and points to other inmates who have committed similar or more egregious crimes but not been condemned to die.

The Marshall Report notes that the Supreme Court recently instructed a lower court to re-examine a death penalty sentence on the basis that the sentence had seemingly been influenced by racial bias, with a juror in that case later saying, "I have wondered if black people even have souls." The Supreme Court also sent a case involving a Mexican man's alleged sexual assault of two women back to lower courts on the basis of a juror's racist remarks.

The Marshall Reported noted that the Supreme Court might take up Rhines' case, and posed the question: "Can a sentence be overturned if it was based on someone's sexual orientation?"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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