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The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it won't hear the case of a man convicted in a 1992 Rapid City murder who claims the jury sentenced him to death due to anti-gay bias.

The justices did not say why they rejected 62-year-old Charles Rhines' petition. The court rejected a similar appeal from Rhines last year. 

"This decision moves this case just that much closer to justice for Donnivan Schaeffer and his family," South Dakota Attorney General Ravnsborg said Monday. "The jurors conducted their deliberations fully aware of the full ramifications of their decisions and with the knowledge that defendants should be punished for the crime they committed and not for who they are."

A Pennington County jury decided in 1993 that Rhines was guilty of premeditated first-degree murder for stabbing Donnivan Schaeffer, a 22-year-old Black Hawk man, in the stomach, back and skull. Rhines attacked Schaeffer, his former co-worker, at the Rapid City doughnut shop he was recently fired from. The jury then decided that Rhines should be given the death penalty rather than life in prison. 

"We're very disappointed" about the Supreme Court's decision, said Shawn Nolan, one of Rhines' lawyers from the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. "We thought that sentencing someone to death based on their sexual orientation is a violation of due process."

Journal archives show four jurors said in 1993 that they voted for the death penalty due to multiple aggravating factors in the murder. Schaeffer's family said in a 2012 interview that they support the jury's decision. 

In their petition, Rhines' lawyers argued that his sentence is unconstitutional because the jury was homophobic and decided to sentence Rhines to death because they thought he would enjoy being in prison with other men.

"We also knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison," one juror said in a sworn affidavit after defense lawyers interviewed jurors in 2016. "If he's gay, we'd be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for" life imprisonment, another juror said the group discussed during sentencing.

Rhines' lawyers were hoping the court would accept the case in light of the 2017 Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado case — when the Supreme Court ruled that defense lawyers can use evidence that jurors relied on racist beliefs to argue that their client had an unfair trial — and extend the ruling to cases of alleged anti-LGBT discrimination. 

In his brief, Ravnsborg wrote that Rhines raised his argument about a homophobic jury too late and that even if the Supreme Court said courts can consider these jurors' comments, Rhines is out of appeals.

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Ravnsborg also questioned the current defense attorneys' ethics and the reliability of their affidavits and said when interviewed by his office that jurors said they didn't consider Rhines' sexual orientation when sentencing. Ravnsborg said racism — the topic at hand in the Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado case — has a more serious, violent and impactful history in the country than homophobia and is more protected by law.

Rhines is now awaiting a ruling from the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, Nolan said, Rhines is asking for a mental health expert to visit him in prison to help him ask for his sentence to be changed from the death penalty to life in prison. 

Ravnsborg is reviewing his options regarding the next steps in the case, his office said in an email Monday. A death warrant for Rhines has not yet been issued, said Michael Winder, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

 

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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