South Dakota

South Dakota

Supreme Court Denies Review in Case of Death Sentence Tainted by Anti-Gay Bias

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case of a South Dakota death-row prisoner whose jurors made anti-gay statements and relied on homophobic beliefs in deciding to sentence him to death. On April 15, 2019, the Court without comment denied a petition filed by Charles Rhines (pictured) asking the Court to declare that the constitutional right to an impartial jury applies equally to bias against a defendant’s sexual orientation. In a statement responding to the Court’s decision, Shawn Nolan, one of Rhines’ federal appeals lawyers, said: “As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an earlier case, ‘[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.’ New evidence – which has never been heard by any court – shows that some of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Rhines to death did so because of who he was, not for what he did.” The jurors in Rhines’ case knew that he was gay, and, Nolan said, new statements from jurors in the case “show that some jurors … thought that he would enjoy life in prison with other men and it would not serve as a sufficient punishment. The jurors’ anti-gay bias deprived Mr. Rhines of his right to a fair sentencing process under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Rhines had sought review based on the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires ... the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” He argued that the same constitutional principle should apply to bias based on sexual orientation.

Jurors told Rhines’ attorneys that “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality” during sentencing deliberations. “There was a lot of disgust. … There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’” In a 2016 sworn statement, juror Frances Cersosimo reported that one juror said, “If he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go” by sentencing Rhines to life in an all-male prison. Juror Harry Keeney said in a sworn statement, “We also knew he was a homosexual and thought he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” Several civil rights groups urged the Court to hear his case. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, and seven LGBTQ rights organizations submitted amicus briefs in support of Rhines. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote, “Just as the Constitution does not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his race, it should not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his sexual orientation.” Nolan echoed that idea in his statement on the Supreme Court’s denial, saying, “both racial prejudice and anti-gay prejudice have no place in the criminal justice system. Both undermine public confidence in the fairness of the system, particularly when jurors must decide between life imprisonment and death.”

Despite the 2017 decision allowing consideration of racially biased juror comments, the Court has declined to intervene in two cases this term in which death-row prisoners were sentenced to death by racist jurors. On March 18, the Court denied review in the case of Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe. One of Tharpe’s jurors signed an affidavit saying “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. N[**]gers,” and Tharpe was not in “the 'good' black folks category.” This same juror also said he “wondered if black people even have souls.” On April 1, the Court also declined to hear the case of Julius Jones, an Oklahoma death-row prisoner whose jury included a juror who said, “they should just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail.” The Court also received harsh criticism after it vacated a federal appeals court stay of execution and permitted Alabama to execute Domineque Ray, a Muslim prisoner who said Alabama’s refusal to allow his imam in the execution chamber amounted to religious discrimination.

Discriminatory Use of Death Penalty Against Gays Raises Concerns Globally and in the U.S.

As human rights activists raise alarms about a new law in Brunei that would punish homosexuality by death by stoning, the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear a case in which jurors who exhibited anti-gay bigotry sentenced a gay defendant to death. Charles Rhines (pictured), a South Dakota death-row prisoner, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, after a lower federal court denied him the opportunity to present juror statements showing that homophobic prejudice played a role in his death sentence. Leading civil rights organizations, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Campaign, have asked the Court to hear the case. Meanwhile, on April 3, 2019, Brunei will institute new laws that will make homosexual sex punishable by death. Brunei’s action has drawn a sharp rebuke from United Nations officials, international human rights groups, and activists—including actor George Clooney and musician Elton John, who are calling for a boycott of properties owned by the Sultan of Brunei.

Charles Rhines filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2019 seeking review of his case after a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit voted 2-1 not to hear his appeal. The civil rights organizations filed supporting briefs on March 25 and the Court is scheduled to consider Rhines’ petition on April 12. At Rhines’ trial, prosecution witnesses testified that he was gay and, according to jurors, “[t]here was lots of discussion of homosexuality” during sentencing deliberations. “There was a lot of disgust. … There were lots of folks who were like, ‘Ew, I can’t believe that.’” In a 2016 sworn statement, juror Frances Cersosimo reported that one juror said, “If he’s gay, we’d be sending him where he wants to go” by sentencing Rhines to life in an all-male prison. Juror Harry Keeney said in a sworn statement, “We also knew he was a homosexual and thought he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” South Dakota prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to refuse to consider the civil rights groups’ briefs, calling the federal defenders office representing Rhines “an extremist organization” and saying the petition should “not become a cause célèbre for making Rhines of all people a false prophet of homosexual rights.”

In 2017, the Court held in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires ... the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Rhines’ lawyers are advocating that the Court extend that ruling to include juror bias against a defendant’s sexual orientation. In an amicus brief, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote, “Just as the Constitution does not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his race, it should not permit a person to be sentenced to die because of his sexual orientation.” A brief submitted by seven LGBTQ rights organizations said, “[b]ias based on sexual orientation in jury deliberations reinforces historical prejudice against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and undermines the integrity of our judicial system.”

Anti-LGBTQ use of the death penalty came under renewed international scrutiny as Brunei prepares to put a new law in place that would make adultery and homosexual sex punishable by death by stoning. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called the law “cruel and inhuman,” “draconian,” and “a serious setback for human rights protections.” Actor and activist George Clooney urged a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei’s monarch, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. In an op-ed for Deadline, Clooney wrote, “every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of [the Sultan’s] nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery.” Musician Elton John joined Clooney’s call for boycotts, saying, “Discrimination on the basis of sexuality is plain wrong and has no place in any society.” “I believe that love is love and being able to love as we choose is a basic human right,” John said.

Amid Questions of Competency, South Dakota to Execute Special-Olympics Defendant Who Gave Up Appeals

The South Dakota Supreme Court has denied motions that sought to delay the October 29, 2018 execution of Rodney Berget (pictured). As the state prepared to execute Berget, the former public defender who represented him at trial took action to fight a prospective legal guardian’s efforts to keep the former Special Olympics participant from being put to death. On Friday, October 26, Juliet Yackel, a Chicago-based lawyer who had been retained in Berget’s state post-conviction proceedings as a mitigation investigator, filed a pleading called a petition for writ of prohibition that asked the South Dakota Supreme Court to halt Berget’s execution and to appoint her as his legal guardian “because he has an intellectual disability and [is] otherwise incompetent, rendering him ineligible to be executed.” Berget waived a jury trial and pled guilty to murder for his involvement in the death of a prison guard, and is currently attempting to waive his appeals. At the close of the trial, he told the sentencing judge, “I believe I deserve the death penalty for what I’ve done.” Yackel’s petition describes Berget as “intellectually disabled and suicidal.” The motion alleges Berget “is not able to protect his own interests and the attorneys assigned to do so have refused” to do so. On Saturday, October 27, Berget’s trial lawyer, Jeff Larson—whom the court removed from the case after he attempted to continue to represent Berget in appeal proceedings meant to raise issues of his possible ineffective assistance at trial—filed an affidavit from Berget opposing Yackel’s motion and reasserting the reasons why Berget says he wants to drop all appeals. On October 29, the South Dakota high court denied the petition.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that individuals with intellectual disability—then known as mental retardation—may not be executed. Yackel’s petition includes a litany of evidence she says  “clearly demonstrates” Berget’s ineligibility for the death penalty: IQ tests administered during Berget’s childhood in which he scored under 70, public welfare records in which a psychologist noted that “the boy appears ... to be suffering from borderline mental retardation,” Berget’s assignment to special education classes and participation in Special Olympics, and a diagnosis of intellectual disability by several leading national mental health experts. The petition and an accompanying affidavit also set forth evidence that Berget has a “lengthy history of self-harm and suicidality.” “This is one of the clearest-cut cases of intellectual disability that I’ve ever worked on,” Yackel told Liliana Segura, an investigative reporter for The Intercept. “There is no question here. This is not a close call.” 

With Larson describing his client as “very intelligent and quite competent,” Berget pled guilty and waived his right to a jury trial. After Larson was fired from the public defender’s office, he continued to represent Berget pro bono, and did not retain a mitigation investigator to research Berget’s background, upbringing, and mental health history. He presented what Segura describes as “an astonishingly weak defense.” After the court removed Larson from the case, Berget was represented by Eric Schulte, a civil lawyer with no capital case experience, who also failed to present evidence of Berget’s participation in Special Olympics. The trial court rejected the intellectual disability claim raised  by Schulte, relying on testimony from a prosecution psychologist who had employed scientifically unsupported methods for assessing intellectual disability that were similar to those the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in Moore v. Texas in 2017. According to Yackel’s petition, acting on “the advice of his personal spiritual advisor, [Schulte] disregarded the clear need for appellate review and refused to file a Notice of Appeal,” effectively waiving Berget’s right to appeal. Dr. Stephen Greenspan, one of the leading national experts on intellectual disability, called the trial court’s ruling “egregious” and the case “one of the most outrageous” he had seen. 

Supreme Court Asked to Review Constitutionality of Death Sentence Grounded in Anti-Gay Stereotypes

A gay man on death row in South Dakota has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case and to rule that it is unconstitutional for jurors to impose the death penalty based upon anti-gay animus and stereotypes. Charles Rhines (pictured) argues that South Dakota’s courts improperly refused to consider evidence—including an affidavit from one of his jurors that the jury “knew that he was a homosexual and thought that he shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison”—showing that jurors in his case improperly based their death verdict on his sexual orientation. In 2017, in Buck v. Davis, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are.” The Court said that a death sentence based on race would be “a disturbing departure from [that] basic premise of our criminal justice system” and ruled that Buck’s lawyer had been ineffective for presenting a witness whose testimony led to a death verdict based on “a noxious strain of racial prejudice.” The same year, the Court held in Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado that “where a juror makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment requires that the no-impeachment rule [under a state rule of evidence] give way in order to permit the trial court to consider the evidence of the juror’s statement and any resulting denial of the jury trial guarantee.” Rhines’ petition asks the Court to rule that states may not refuse to consider evidence of juror animus based on sexual orientation and to declare that death sentences based upon prejudicial homophobic stereotypes are unconstitutional. An affidavit submitted by one of the jurors in Rhines’ case said that there had been “lots of discussion of homosexuality” during deliberations and “a lot of disgust.” While they were deliberating, jurors asked the court whether Rhines 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.” According to an affidavit, one juror advocated against incarcerating Rhines with other men for life imprisonment without parole because it “would be sending him where he wants to go.” Quoting Buck, Rhines’ lawyers wrote, “To allow a juror to vote for a man’s death sentence on the basis of anti-gay animus and stereotypes unquestionably violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, along with the foundational principle that ‘[o]ur law punishes people for what they do, not who they are. Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.’” South Dakota opposes Rhines’ request, arguing that the constitutional principles that prohibit inquiring into jury sentencing based on racial bias do not apply to “bias based on gender, alienage, or sexual orientation. ... No politician has ever proposed constructing a wall to keep homosexuals out of the country,” the state’s brief says. “No civil war has been fought over [sexual orientation]. No nationwide pogrom has been perpetrated for the enslavement or eradication of homosexuals.” The Court has scheduled a conference for June 14 on whether to review Rhines’ case. [UPDATE: On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Rhines’s petition for writ of certiorari, declining to review his case.]

South Dakota Takes Death Penalty Off Table At Victim’s Family’s Request

At the urging of the victim’s family, Rapid City, South Dakota prosecutors have withdrawn their request for the death penalty against two murder defendants in the only capital trials pending in the state. On April 16, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo withdrew the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Jonathon Klinetobein—charged with arranging the May 2015 murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rehfeld—after her father, Michael Rehfeld told the court the family no longer wanted the death penalty to be imposed. On April 19, prosecutors also withdrew their notice of intent against a second defendant, Richard Hirth, the accused killer. A third defendant pleaded guilty to the murder in January in exchange for receiving a life sentence. Mr. Rehfeld said that he had been “consumed with anger” at the time the capital charges were initially sought and that he had “fully supported” that decision. However, he said, with time, he had reconsidered his position. Mr. Rehfeld said the lengthy appeal process following the imposition of a death sentence in the case would keep his daughter’s killers in the news, permitting “the guilty to become famous,” as a prolonged traumatic courtroom saga that relegated his daughter to a sidelight prevented the family from healing. He also said that the family would be unable to recover his daughter’s personal belongings—including a cellphone with the last pictures taken of her—as long as the case remained on appeal. Klinetobein and Hirth now face life without parole if convicted. Victims’ family members, concerned that the capital trial and appeals process interferes with or delays healing, are increasingly requesting that prosecutors not pursue the death penalty. A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of victims family members reported achieving closure as a result of capital punishment, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Another study, published in the Marquette Law Review, found that family members in homicide proceedings in which the death penalty was unavailable or had not been imposed were physically, psychologically, and emotionally more healthy and expressed greater satisfaction with the legal system than family members in death-penalty cases. Pennington County Commission Chairman Lloyd LaCroix said the decision to withdraw the death penalty would save the county money, although he was uncertain how much. In September 2017, the commissioners granted requests by the county courts and the public defender’s office for half-million-dollar increases to their 2018 budgets. The director of the public defender’s office had previously estimated that taxpayers could "reasonably expect" to pay between $500,000 and $1 million in prosecution and defense costs for the cases. Rapid City last imposed a death sentence in 1993. Charles Rhines' appeals in that case reached the U.S. Supreme Court before being sent back for additional appeals that are still in progress.

Death-Penalty Prosecutions Create Million-Dollar Budget Burden for South Dakota County

County Commissioners in Pennington CountySouth Dakota have approved budget increases of a half-million dollars each for the county's courts and its public defender office for 2018, largely as a result of two high-profile death-penalty prosecutions. Taxpayers will shoulder most of the financial burden resulting from the capital prosecutions of Rapid City defendants Jonathon Klinetobe and Richard Hirth, charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in the disappearance and death of Klinetobe’s ex-girlfriend, Jessica Rehfeld, in 2015. A third man involved in the alleged plot avoided the death penalty by agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate with the prosecution. In preparation for their trials, the public defender’s office in Pennington County, the state's second most populous, requested a $567,000 increase over and above its current $2.4 million budget. The county courthouse, which pays court-appointed attorneys, requested an increase of $530,000 above its already $1.4 million budget. The county prosecutor's office will also receive a $135,000 increase to its $5.1 million budget. The County Commissioners approved the increases on September 26. Eric Whitcher, director of the Pennington County Public Defender’s Office, said death-penalty cases are “exceedingly expensive” and taxpayers can “reasonably expect” to pay between $500,000 to $1 million in trial-related costs. His June 13 letter to the county auditor’s office stressed that additional funding was essential to cover "substantial expenditures" for expert evaluations, travel expenses, and witness fees. The public defender's office, which represents Klinetobe, is prohibited from representing both defendants, requiring the appointment of private counsel for Hirth. The court has appointed two private lawyers in his case, and Klinetobe is represented by one private lawyer, in addition to two lawyers from the public defender’s office. About $200,000 of the new funding granted to the public defender’s office has been earmarked for Klinetobe’s defense alone. Holli Hennies, county commission office manager, said in June that budget increases would largely be funded from property tax collections. 

NEW VOICES: South Dakota Republican Legislator to Propose Death Penalty Repeal Bill

South Dakota state Senator Arthur Rusch (R-Vermillion, pictured), a former trial court judge who presided over a capital trial in which a defendant was sentenced to death, said he will be introducing legislation next year to repeal the state's death penalty. Rusch said he supports repeal because of the emotional toll of capital trials on juriors and because of the financial impact of capital punishment. As a former Lincoln County circuit court judge, Rusch presided over the 1997 trial of Donald Moeller, and saw firsthand the anguish jurors experienced when they sentenced Moeller to death. Because of that experience, he said, "I think I'm more knowledgeable about the emotional toll. It's really hard on people having to make that decision." On the issue of cost, he said, "I know there’s this reaction that keeping people in jail for many, many years is expensive, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as the court costs." Death penalty abolition bills have previously failed in committee in South Dakota, but Senator Bernie Hunhoff (D-Yankton) said that the support of Republicans like Rusch could change that and allow the state to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Nebraska. "You can see that gradual transformation in Nebraska, and you’re seeing that very same thing here," said Sen. Hunhoff, who has sponsored past repeal bills in South Dakota. South Dakota has three people on death row, and has executed three people since 1976.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

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