Out of time

Gay man executed despite claims jury sent him to death over his sexuality

Charles Russell Rhines (Photo: S.D. Dept. of Corrections)

A gay man guilty of murder has been executed in South Dakota after being on death row for more than 25 years.

Charles Russell Rhines, 63, was executed via lethal injection yesterday at 7.39pm local time at the state prison in Sioux Falls, SD.

Rhines pleaded guilty to the brutal stabbing of 22-year-old Donnivan Schaeffer. The incident took place in 1992 while Rhines attempted to rob a Rapid City doughnut shop and was disturbed by Schaeffer.

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Schaeffer worked at the store and was making a delivery. Rhines stabbed him in the stomach.

Schaeffer begged to be taken to hospital and promised not to tell anyone of seeing Rhines. Instead, Rhines took him to a storeroom, tied him up and stabbed him dead.

During his trial, the jury heard how Rhines had boasted of knowing exactly how far he had to stick a knife into someone’s head to kill them instantly. He also appeared to show no remorse over the death, even laughing as he recounted Schaeffer’s death spasms.

After hearing Rhines’ confession to police, the jury consequently recommended the death penalty.

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However, reports later emerged of the jury’s deliberations. This included a comment from one juror about how locking Rhines up in jail with other men for the rest of his life was probably what he’d want, as he was gay.

The jury also sent notes with questions to the judge. This included asking whether Rhines would have a cell to himself or would have a cellmate.

In 2017, Rhines appealed to the US Supreme Court to have his death sentence changed to life in prison. He argued the jury had been biased against him as a gay man.

Jury members told investigators this was not the case, and that the comment about him enjoying being locked up in prison with other men was a lighthearted quip in response to Rhines’ apparent lack of remorse.

South Dakota’s attorney general’s office also defended the jury’s decision.

“The jurors have stated they were moved to a death sentence by the calloused and gruesome nature of the murder and, most of all, by Rhines’ bloodcurdling confession, in which he cackles while comparing (his victim’s) death spasms to a beheaded chicken running around a barnyard.”

In 2018, the US Supreme Court declined to reconsider Rhines’ case without giving a reason.

Rhines continued to fight against his execution. His legal team lodged further appeals. Besides arguing that the original jury was biased, he and his lawyers focussed on how he was due to die. They argued the drug pentobarbital is not the “ultra-short-acting” drug he was entitled to.

However, yesterday afternoon, that and two other points of appeal also failed, meaning the execution could go ahead.

Before he was put to death Rhines was allowed his final words. He used them to address the parents of his victim, telling them he forgave them for their anger towards him.

“Ed and Peggy Schaeffer, I forgive you for your anger and hatred towards me,” he said, reports Rapid City Journal.

“I pray to God that he forgives you for your anger and hatred towards me. Thanks to my team. I love you all, goodbye. Let’s go. That’s all I have to say. Goodbye.”

Rhines’ lawyer, Shawn Nolan, said of his client’s execution: “It is very sad and profoundly unjust that the State of South Dakota today executed Charles Rhines, a gay man, without any court ever hearing the evidence of gay bias that infected the jury’s decision to sentence him to death.”