The case, Rhines v. South Dakota, centered around the conviction and subsequent imposition of a death sentence of an openly gay man for first degree murder. Make no mistake that the underlying facts of the case are disturbing. But what BALIF finds truly disturbing is that the case exposes the vile biases facing LGBT defendants in the justice system, and that there is seemingly no Constitutional checks and balances afforded to LGBT defendants when these injustices are exposed.
The Rhines case exposed a clear anti-LGBT bias on two fronts. First, the prosecution unnecessarily placed the defendant’s sexuality on display to apparently prejudice jurors. Largely through calling witnesses to testify that they had either engaged in sexual acts with the defendant or had witnessed Mr. Rhines engage in displays of affection with persons of the same-sex. In fact, the introduction of these witness statements was especially egregious given the fact that one juror was heard ponitificating that homosexuality was a sin during voir dire. Second, and which was the main issue on appeal, the jury exhibited a pervasive anti-gay bias throughout deliberations. Explosively, the jury went so far as to send the trial judge a note containing questions exposing the jury’s concern that the defendant would enjoy prison if sent. Specifically, asking if Mr. Rhines would be able to “marry or have conjugal visits? Or if he would “mix with the general population?” After the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty was entered, several jurors issued sworn statements that the jury’s rationale behind its sentence was that the defendant “shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” And that there was frankly “a lot of disgust” over his orientation.
Mr. Rhines cited to these statements in his appeal arguing a clear violation of the Sixth & Fourteenth Amendment’s right to an impartial trial. However, there was just one caveat affecting the defendant’s claim. South Dakota has a “no impeachment” rule which prohibits defendants from impeaching jury verdicts with evidence of statements made during deliberations. So, Mr. Rhines could not use the evidence to challenge his sentence. But his chances appeared to improve slightly when the Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado last year. The Pena decision held that states’ “no impeachment” rules are inapplicable in situations where jurors have made clear and explicit statements indicating racial animus and if racial bias was a significant factor in the decision to convict. Naturally, Mr. Rhines challenged South Dakota’s “no impeachment” law on Constitutional grounds arguing that the Pena decision logically extends to LGBT persons. Unfortunately, with the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case, the holding in Pena remains confined to racial bias. It seems that LGBT defendants will have to live with the status quo for now. Or not.