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The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether it will hear the decades-old case of a man convicted of fatally stabbing a former co-worker at a Rapid City doughnut shop. 

In 1993, a Pennington County jury agreed Charles Rhines was guilty of premeditated first-degree murder for stabbing Donnivan Schaeffer, a 22-year-old Rapid City man, in the stomach, back and skull. The jury also agreed Rhines should be given the death penalty rather than life in prison. 

Rhines isn't asking the Supreme Court to re-examine his guilt but to find that the death sentence was based on his sexuality.

In their petition, Rhines' lawyers argue 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. 

The Supreme Court ruled in the 2017 Peña Rodriguez v. Colorado case that defense lawyers can use evidence that jurors relied on racist stereotypes or beliefs to argue that their client had an unfair trial. 

"Now we're hoping that they extend a similar rule for anti-gay discrimination, said Daniel Harawa, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who filed a brief in support of Rhines' argument. "The court should find that LGBT discrimination is also unconstitutional when deciding a person's death sentence."

Early on in Rhines' appeals process, his petition says, his lawyers pointed to a jury note to the judge that asked if Rhines was sent to prison would he be able to "mix with the general inmate population," "marry or have conjugal visits," "be jailed alone or will he have a cellmate" and other questions. 

Then in 2016, Rhines' new defense lawyers from the Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (PFCDO) interviewed jurors who said they considered Rhines' sexual orientation when handing down the death penalty, the petition says. 

"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. Another said that jurors at the time of the sentencing said "that if he's gay, we'd be sending him where he wants to go if we voted for" life imprisonment.

"Anti-gay bias, if left unaddressed, risks systemic harm to the justice system and, in particular, capital (death penalty) jury sentencing," the petition says. 

In his response, Jason Ravnsborg, South Dakota's attorney general, said the Supreme Court should not take up the case. He said Rhines raised his argument about a homophobic jury too late and that even if the Supreme Court says courts can consider jurors' homophobic comments, Rhines is out of appeals.

He also questioned PFCDO's ethics and affidavits, calling them "inherently unreliable." He says PFCDO is an anti-death penalty law firm that ambushed and harassed jurors. When interviewed by his office, jurors "stated consistently and unequivocally that Rhines’ homosexuality had absolutely no bearing on their decision to impose a death sentence." 

"The alleged juror comments here are not clear and explicit expressions of animus toward homosexuals," Ravnsborg added. "At best, they fall into the category of an 'offhand comment.'"

He said racism has a more serious, violent and impactful history in the country than homophobia and is more protected by law.

"American history is not replete with 'stark and unapologetic' anti-homosexual jury verdicts. No civil war has been fought over it. No nationwide program has been perpetrated for the enslavement, eradication or extreme persecution of homosexuals," he wrote.

Rhines' case has generated national attention in the past week with reports in The New York Times and Mother Jones. Opinion pieces by the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times and an attorney with Lambda Legal — a civil rights organization that focuses on LGBT rights — encouraged the Supreme Court to hear his case. 

The Supreme Court justices will hold a private meeting Friday to decide whether or not they agree to take up the case, Harawa said. Then on Monday, the court will publish its decision to accept or reject the case or delay its decision. 

Rhines case has a long, complex legal history, Harawa said. His conviction and death sentence were most recently upheld by a federal court of appeals last fall. 

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

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

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