Man executed in USA for being gay, court documents reveal

CHARLES Rhines did it. There's no disputing that.

On March 8, 1992, he used a key to gain entry to Dig' Em Donuts in Rapid City, South Dakota, where, armed with a hunting knife, he stabbed and killed a man who had surprised him in the dark.

Donnivan Schaeffer died on the floor of the shop and Rhines hardly protested his innocence.

The evidence was cut and dry. But controversy followed the case - and still follows it today - because the jury tasked with handing out an appropriate sentence asked "inappropriate" questions in the process.

In a note to the judge, revealed several years after it was written, jurors asked nine questions after learning that Rhines was gay - questions that lawyers allege revealed an anti-gay bias.

The questions included:

1. Will Mr Rhines be allowed to mix with the general inmate population?

2. Will Mr Rhines be allowed to create a group of followers or admirers?

3. Will Mr Rhines be jailed alone or will he have a cellmate?

The jurors apologised to the judge for the "inappropriate questions", telling him they "know what the death penalty means, but we have no clue as to the reality of life without parole".

After it was sent to the judge, jurors received the following written statement:

"I acknowledge your note asking questions about life imprisonment. All the information I can give you is set forth in the jury instructions."

In court documents seen by, lawyers claim jurors who went on to sentence Rhines to execution did so to punish him because he was a homosexual.

The lawyers argue jurors were convinced Rhines would like it in prison because he would be surrounded by men. The alternative - lethal injection - was their preferred option.

"Charles Rhines is a gay man, and the jurors at his capital trial knew it," Rhines' lawyers said in a petition for appeal.

"Both the jury selection and the trial testimony addressed his sexual orientation. During penalty phase deliberations, the jurors sent out a note asking whether he would be allowed to 'mix with the general inmate population,' 'create a group of followers or admirers,' 'brag about his crime to other inmates, especially new and/or young men,' 'marry or have conjugal visits,' or 'have a cellmate'."

Charles Rhines killed a man in 1992.
Charles Rhines killed a man in 1992.

Lawyers claim that during deliberations, jurors "knew (Rhines) was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn't be able to spend his life with men in prison".

"A deliberating juror had said that locking Mr Rhines up with other men for life imprisonment without parole 'would be sending him where he wants to go' and that there had been 'lots of discussion of homosexuality' and 'a lot of disgust'," the petition claims.

Last week, the Supreme Court announced it would not halt Rhines' execution. It ended two years of fighting on Rhines' behalf following the discovery of the jurors' note in 2016.

Shawn Nolan, head of the capital habeas unit of the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, told The Intercept: "The jury note jumped out at us."

He and his team challenged the ruling on the ground that jurors should rule on "what people do, not who they are".

They were ultimately unsuccessful. The Marshall Project, a non-profit organisation advocating for justice in the United States, reached out to several jurors.

They said they voted for the death penalty primarily because of the nature of the murder and Rhines' confession where he compared the victim's death spasms to a "chicken running around a barnyard".

Juror Delight McGriff told the organisation the murder was horrific but so were the killers' actions after the fact.

"The pictures of the kid, the way he bragged about the kid begging for his life. Those things never leave your head."

While Rhines waits to have a cocktail of drugs injected into his system, the Mr Schaeffer's family is still picking up the pieces.

Peggy Schaeffer, Donnivan's mother, read the following statement in court:

"Donnivan was our youngest son. He was a happy, considerate and helpful young man. His dreams were to finish school, live on his own, and get married. He attended Vo-Tech and had a job waiting for him when he graduated.

"His plan was to marry Sheila Pond in May, 1993. Our dreams were becoming his dreams and those dreams are never to be a reality. Not having Donnivan with us has left us with heartache and sadness that at times seem unbearable.

"Now, at the end of the hall in our home is a bedroom filled with memories and we can only dream of the future Donnivan may have had."