After nearly 27 years on death row, Charles Rhines is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 1:30 p.m. Central Time on Monday at the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
The 63-year-old man was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1993 by a Pennington County jury for stabbing Donnivan Schaeffer, a 22-year-old from Black Hawk, during a burglary at a westside Rapid City doughnut shop.
Dennis Groff, who prosecuted Rhines when he was the Pennington County state’s attorney, said Friday he will be at the execution with the victim’s parents.
"When I go to see this execution, I'm really more there to sit beside Ed and Peggy (Schaeffer) and support them and what they've been through," said Groff, a 67-year-old who now works in family law and criminal defense in Rapid City.
Rhines and his lawyers are still hoping to stop the execution by asking the South Dakota Supreme Court to hear his rejected challenge to the execution drug being used and petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his declined request to use mental health experts retained by his lawyers to prepare a clemency application. They're also asking the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the execution.
Schaeffer's parents told the Journal this week that they don't want to be interviewed until after the execution.
But they said during the execution warrant hearing in June that despite the long wait, they don't regret the jury's sentence. Peggy Schaeffer said she feels her son "beside me all the time" and thinks about what he would have accomplished if he was alive today.
A brutal murder
In March 1992, Schaeffer was working three-part time jobs, including one as a deliveryman at Dig 'Em Donuts on West Main Street, according to Journal archives. He was engaged to his high school sweetheart, about to graduate from Western Dakota Tech, and already had a full-time job offer from a telephone installation company in Spearfish. He was close to his family, which included a brother and sister.
Schaeffer, an award-winning archer who enjoyed hunting and fishing, was described as a funny, kind and positive person who was a good student and hard worker.
He was found stabbed with his hands tied behind his back in a storeroom of the doughnut shop when the night crew workers arrived around 10 p.m. on March 8, 1992.
Groff said Rhines stabbed Schaeffer twice and continued his robbery before dragging him into the storeroom and delivering the final blow to the back of his neck.
"His life was over in minutes, and he was helpless to do anything to save his life," Groff said.
Police officers soon realized that cash and checks were stolen but found no murder weapon and had no obvious suspect.
A few days later, two women out on a walk in Rapid Valley found a hunting knife and checks made out to the doughnut shop in a ditch.
By May, community members raised nearly $15,000 that would be given to anyone who helped lead police to the suspect.
On June 19, more than three months after the murder, Rhines was arrested in Seattle. It took nearly two more months to extradite him back to Rapid City. Police suspected that Rhines was surprised when Schaeffer entered the doughnut shop and killed him to cover up the $3,400 he stole.
Rhines grew up in McLaughlin, a northern South Dakota town on the Standing Rock Reservation, with three siblings, according to Journal archives. One of Rhines' brothers who once spoke to the Argus Leader declined to be interviewed by the Journal for this story.
Rhines was described as a loner who didn't listen in school, archives show. After dropping out of high school, he spent three years in the Army, earned his GED, and attended but never graduated from vocational school. He spent seven months in prison for burglary when he 21, and soon returned to prison for seven years after robbing a liquor store with a sawed-off shotgun.
He worked as a baker for Dig 'Em Doughnuts for about nine months, but was fired three weeks before the murder, a co-worker told the Journal after his arrest. The co-worker said Rhines and Schaeffer knew each other but were not friends, and that Rhines attended Schaeffer's funeral.
"He's where he should be. He's in God's hands now," the co-worker recalled Schaeffer saying at the funeral.
Evidence comes together
Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender was a 30-year-old detective when assigned to the case.
“This case shocked the community. It made people afraid again,” Allender said in a 2012 Journal story that detailed how he identified Rhines as the suspect. "This guy on the loose could mean anything. It could mean he’s in your garage when you go out.”
Allender says the case still sticks with him.
"Most other murder cases seem to have some common association between the victim to the suspect. Domestic violence, drunken friends, fellow or enemy gang members," he recently told the Journal.
"But this case was much different. A 22-year-old victim who was completely innocent," he said.
Allender and his partner interviewed Rhines the night of the murder but didn't consider him a suspect at the time.
The detectives were interviewing one of men who discovered Schaeffer's body and needed to take his clothes as evidence. The man called Rhines, who was his roommate, and had him bring him a change of clothes.
Police decided to interview Rhines and asked him "fairly standard" questions about his time working at the doughnut shop and his relationship with Schaeffer, Allender said. They also asked Rhines if he would be staying in the area in case they needed to follow up with him.
"He said something to the effect of 'yes, I’m going to stay here, I’m not going to Seattle.' This statement didn’t really mean anything at the time," Allender recalled.
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But Allender became suspicious when he later learned that Rhines moved to Seattle. He and his partner traveled there to interview him but did not accuse of him being a suspect.
Then, in May, Rhines' former roommate told police that Rhines confessed to the murder and threatened him and his fiancé when they visited him in Seattle. In June, Rhines' jacket was found in a field southeast of Rapid City, the same site where a shoe that matched footprints at the crime scene was previously located.
Allender and his partner returned to Seattle that month where they arrested Rhines and interrogated him at a local police station.
"After an hour or less, he confessed to the murder. He was exceptionally cocky and smug," Allender remembered.
Confession impacts jury
While juries usually decide whether or not to convict defendants in South Dakota, it's normally up to the judge to determine sentencing. The one exception is capital punishment cases, where after a separate sentencing trial, the jury decides the defendant's fate. If the jury doesn't unanimously decide on the death penalty, the defendant will be sent to life in prison without the chance of parole.
"It's a very high burden to get to the death penalty," said Groff.
Of all the murders he prosecuted between 1985 and 1996, Groff said, he only determined that three were eligible for the death penalty, which require an aggravating factor. And Rhines' case was the only one where jurors chose death.
Jury selection took nine days, according to Journal archives. People who are always against the death penalty, or who always support it in murder cases, can't be selected, Groff said.
He said Rhines' three lawyers were highly competent, particularly Joe Butler, who many consider "the finest lawyer that we've ever had in Rapid City."
Butler died in 2002, and the other lawyers, Wayne Gilbert and Mike Stonefield, could not be reached for comment.
Rhines did not testify and under South Dakota law at the time, prosecutors could not mention his past convictions, Groff said. The three-day trial culminated with Rhines' recorded confession.
During the confession, Groff said, Rhines made it clear that he knew the final stab to the neck would be fatal and referred to it as a coup de grâce, or death blow.
"It was like the final moment, almost like a triumphant moment" for him and that really stuck with the jury, Groff said.
Rhines bursting into laughter during the confession also impacted jurors, Allender told the Argus Leader in 2014, as did his comparing Schaeffer's death spasms to a decapitated chicken running around, according to a document the South Dakota Attorney General's Office sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Once the trial ended, the jury took a little more than three hours before finding Rhines guilty.
The sentencing hearing took one day, and the jury deliberated overnight before returning a death penalty verdict after two votes. Groff said the jury found three aggravating factors: killing for money, murdering a witness to a crime, and using torture.
"We tried to find every reason not to give him death" but no one else but us heard the confession, one juror told the Journal after the sentencing.
26 years of appeals, lawsuits
Rhines has been on death row for so long due to the many appeals and lawsuits he's filed in state and federal court challenging his conviction and death sentence.
"This was a very clean case" and judges have never found any problems with it, Groff said. "It doesn't matter how many times you turn it like a Rubik’s Cube, the way it was presented did not create any legal issues for the defendant to really run with."
Allender said Rhines was "able to game the system" and use "loopholes and other gaps" in the courts. "No one is served by prolonging this execution nearly three decades."
But Shawn Nolan, one of Rhines' lawyers, said they're not looking for loopholes. Part of the delay, he said, is due to his team recently uncovering new evidence that Rhines' past counsel failed to find.
"When we decide to put people to death, we ought to make sure that the death sentence is constitutional," said Nolan, who heads the capital punishment unit of the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
On Friday, Nolan asked the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the execution and order a South Dakota federal judge to hear evidence that the jury was homophobic and sentenced Rhines, who is gay, to death because they thought he would enjoy being around other men in prison. Rhines' lawyers say original jury notes and recent interviews with jurors admitting their motive prove their argument.
But the South Dakota Attorney General's Office said in a document to the Supreme Court that when it interviewed jurors, they "stated consistently and unequivocally that Rhines’ homosexuality had absolutely no bearing on their decision to impose a death sentence."
This particular aspect of Rhines' case was covered by multiple national media outlets and the L.A. Times Editorial Board called on the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. But the high court declined to hear the case in April without giving a reason.
Despite past petitions, Nolan said, no court has ever had the chance to determine whether the jury was motivated by homophobia.
Rhines' life is now in the hands of the courts or the clemency power of Gov. Kristi Noem, who has said she has no plans to halt his execution.
"It's gone as far as it can go," Nolan said.