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Did Jurors Choose Death Penalty Because the Defendant Is Gay?

By George Khoury, Esq. on August 08, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the early 90s, Charles Rhines brutally murdered a donut shop employee while committing a robbery. There's no dispute about that, at least not anymore. Rhines confessed and got sentenced to the death penalty, and has been on death row ever since, despite his numerous unsuccessful appeals and efforts to seek habeas relief.

Recently, it is being reported that Rhines's death sentence is related to the fact that he is a gay man. Apparently, the jurors sent a list of questions to the judge while deliberating during the penalty phase, and those questions seem to imply that the jurors were concerned Rhines would be in a gay paradise in prison for the rest of his life. Despite how offensive such a notion seems today, in the early 90s, women and the disabled had barely just received federal civil rights protections (we're not making excuses over here, just providing context).

Anti-LGBT Juror Bias

While racial, ethnic, and gender bias can all be reasons to overturn a jury's decision, anti-gay sentiment is not yet considered to be a good enough reason in all states, or federally.

Notably though, Rhines's case may not be the test case that civil rights advocates want to put their efforts into or rally behind. After reading the details of the murder, and his confession and conviction, not many people will feel bad for him, and it's unlikely that lawmakers would want to name an act after him, nor will judges be looking for a way to "make things right." Rhines isn't going to have his conviction overturned, particularly as he was only challenging his sentencing, and that ship has sailed long ago.

Rhines still has two avenues left to secure relief from execution. Because his most recent appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal was rejected by a panel, he can still seek a rehearing en banc, and/or he can file a petition for cert. to SCOTUS.

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