Supreme Court Allows Execution Despite Clemency, Gay Bias Claims

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The U.S. Supreme Court condoned the execution of a gay South Dakota prisoner who said homophobia tainted his death sentence.

The high court rejected multiple appeals from Charles Rhines before his execution in the evening of Nov. 4, and avoided weighing in on myriad contentious legal issues presented by his case, including gay rights, jury room secrecy, and capital punishment, among others.

None of the justices noted any disagreement with the rejection of his appeal on the bias issue, but the simultaneous rejection of a different claim—related to his attempt to mount a clemency campaign—sparked a separate statement from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The state refused mental health experts access to Rhines in prison. Sotomayor didn’t dissent from the high court’s rejection of that claim because, she said, it’s unclear whether Rhines needed an expert evaluation for his clemency application.

But she wrote separately to note that the denial “does not represent an endorsement of the lower courts’ opinions” against Rhines, and to emphasize that clemency isn’t “a matter of mercy alone,” but a “fail safe” in the criminal justice system.

“By closing the prison doors in this context,” Sotomayor wrote, “a State risks rendering this fundamental process an empty ritual.”

The justices likewise rejected a third appeal of Rhines’ related to the state’s execution protocol.

On the bias issue, Rhines, who was convicted of a brutal 1992 murder, pointed to disturbing alleged statements made by jurors at his 1993 trial, like one who said locking him up with other men for life would be sending him where he wants to go.

He also pointed to a jury note from the deliberations, where jurors asked the judge if Rhines would be allowed to mix with the general inmate population, brag about his crime to young men, or have a cellmate.

He cited recent high court cases like Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado, where the court chastised racism in the jury room, and Buck v. Davis, where the court nixed a death sentence after an expert at the defendant’s trial cited race as a factor in whether people are dangerous.

“Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in Buck.