News (USA)

The Supreme Court is okay with homophobic jurors judging gay defendants more harshly

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An LGBTQ activist waves a rainbow flag on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: Ted Eytan via Flickr

Suppose you were facing trial on serious charges. You would want to make sure that someone on the jury didn’t want to make an example of you because of anti-LGBTQ bias. But the Supreme Court just said that, as far as they’re concerned, that’s not a problem.

This week the Court decided not to review the case of Charles Rhines, who was convicted of the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer during a robbery in South Dakota. Rhines is as unsympathetic a character as you can get.

He stabbed Schaeffer at the base of his skull with a hunting knife, partially severing Schaeffer’s brain stem.  Rhines then left Schaeffer to die, departing with the money he stole to get some french fries. In his confession, Rhines laughed as he compared Schaeffer’s dying spasms to a chicken being beheaded.

Rhines was sentenced to death for the crime in 1993. But the jurors spent a lot of time being grossed out by Rhines’ sexuality. “There was lots of discussion of homosexuality,” one juror recalled. “There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’”

The jurors even debated whether Rhines would enjoy life in prison, because as a gay man, being locked up with a bunch of men would be “sending him where he wants to go.”

Despite the obvious homophobia involved in Rhines’ case, the Supreme Court chose not to review his appeal. Whatever you think of the sentence Rhines’ received, the Court’s refusal to act has broad implications well beyond this single case.

The Supreme Court has made it clear that racial animus by jurors is reason for defendants to have their sentences revisited. They just don’t think anti-LGBTQ bias meets the same threshold–at least not yet.

That means that jurors can decide that a trans defendant deserves a harsher sentence because she’s trans. Or that a gay defendant deserves less sympathy than anyone else. Jurors can hate you for who you are and then use that hate to determine your fate.

At some point, the Court may decide to hear a case that would address the issue once and for all. In the meantime though, anti-LGTBQ prejudice in the jury room is perfectly okay.

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