A Gay Inmate’s Last Chance, and the Weight of History

MEDIUM | Nathaniel Frank | Apr. 10, 2019

In 1974, a lonely 17-year-old boy named Charles Rhines, who lived in a small town in South Dakota, joined the Army. Rhines had grown up closeted, and probably autistic, in rural America, and like many gay boys of that era, he hoped military service would prove his manhood and give him somewhere to belong. Instead, just months after enlisting, and days after a playful twirl in the barracks appeared to rile up a fellow soldier who accused him of showing off his back side, Rhines was struck from behind while in an open bay shower. He was hit so hard his forehead bounced off the hard tile wall and he fell to the ground. Through the mental fog appeared his accuser and three other soldiers, who held him down and took turns anally raping him.

Rhines, who blamed himself for provoking the attack, never reported it, terrified that doing so would spur more violence and humiliation, expose his sexuality, and might get him booted from the military, where it was illegal to be gay. Instead, he held in the pain, and after receiving a general discharge following a rocky deployment to Korea, floundered in the outside world, where he turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the mounting stress. He became caught in a traumatic cycle in which poor coping skills turned abuse, stress, debt, crime, and jailtime into an insurmountable downward spiral.

In 1992, Rhines keyed into the Dig ’Em Donuts shop, where he worked before being fired, in search of cash, but was startled by an employee named Donnivan Schaeffer. Rhines pulled out the buck knife he carried with him and stabbed Schaeffer to death. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced by a South Dakota jury to be executed for first-degree murder, even though his act was clearly not planned.

The stabbing death of Donnivan Schaeffer was an inexcusable brutality and there’s no doubt Rhines deserves a harsh penalty. But his case also gives new meaning to the concept of mitigating circumstances which, so far, have fallen on deaf ears in the criminal justice system.

After a lengthy appeals process delayed — but failed to reverse — his sentence, the inmate is now facing one last chance. This month the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider an appeal based on several factors that his lawyers have argued warrant a reconsideration of his case.

At the time of the trial, the jury had revealed alarming bias. While deliberating his penalty, the jury sent the judge a list of questions about what prison life might be like for Rhines: Would he be permitted to “create a group of followers or admirers,” to “brag about his crime to other inmates,” especially “young men,” or to “marry or have conjugal visits”? The questions seemed designed to determine whether Rhines — because he’s gay — might assault or “convert” fellow male inmates, and whether he might actually enjoy prison more than death.

Flagging these biases during the trial failed to mitigate the sentence. But in 2015, newly obtained juror statements revealed a level of jury bias that, Rhines’ attorneys argued, should entitle him to a new penalty phase hearing. According to the affidavits, one juror had called the defendant “that SOB queer.” A second worried that if Rhines were sentenced to life in prison, he could be a “sexual threat to other inmates and take advantage of other young men.” A third juror said “there was lots of discussion of homosexuality” and that, as a South Dakota farming community, “there was a lot of disgust.”

But the most shocking revelation was that a juror commented during deliberations that if Rhines were given life in prison instead of death, since he was a gay man, “we’d be sending him where he wants to go.” If there was any doubt about it, the new evidence makes crystal clear that revolting beliefs about Rhines’ sexuality played a factor in literally the most serious decision that can be made about a human being’s life at the hands of the state: the decision to end it.

Rhines’ motions to have these shocking statements admitted were denied. Both the South Dakota Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court (in an earlier appeal) declined to intervene — despite a 2017 Court ruling that new evidence should be admitted when a juror has made “a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant.” The courts have so far declined to apply that ruling’s protections to anti-LGBT bias because of the “unique” nature of racial bias in America. (The NAACP itself just submitted an amicus brief supporting Rhines’ motion for a new hearing, stating that it is “well aware of the unique role that race has played” in blocking equal treatment in America, but that, “just as the Constitution does not permit a person to be sentenced to death because of his race, it should not permit a person to be sentenced to death because of his sexual orientation.”)

Attention in this case has understandably focused on whether jury bias should, under the Court’s 2017 ruling about “animus,” entitle the defendant to a new trial. But it’s crucial to recognize that Rhines’ trial was the second time he was utterly failed by a homophobic world, and the failure during the earlier period of his life may have had the graver impact on his life — as it certainly did on Schaeffer’s.

The rape that Rhines blamed himself for in an Army barracks took place in one of the most virulently anti-gay climates in American history: the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era. The persistent, inescapable experience of trauma suffered by gays and lesbians who donned the nation’s uniform was born of both official policy and the social norms of a viciously anti-gay culture that viewed gay people as disgusting and downright dangerous. Thousands of gay and lesbian military members were systematically purged from the ranks during this period and left with their civilian job prospects, personal reputations, and family relations in tatters. Many were thrown into military prisons for having consensual same-sex relations.

If they managed to avoid the clutches of military law, they still faced harassment, humiliation and violence, including the constant threat of sexual assault, which was often perpetrated against those thought to be gay. The history of the era is replete with accounts of troops who, considered effeminate or gay, were derided as “fucking faggots,” blamed for slowing down a unit, and pummeled into submission as a way to “straighten out the queers.” It was too risky to report such abuse because doing so could put victims at risk of further verbal or physical mistreatment, as well as investigation, exposure, separation or prison — with consequences that would far outlast their military tenures.

The rationales cited for why gay people must be excluded from the military were themselves profoundly harmful to gay people. The “security threat” rationale tarred gay people as inherently subversive and dangerous, casting their presence as contrary to the mission of protecting national security. The “unit cohesion” rationale — that gay people would undermine the bonds that made military units combat-effective — depicted them as innately untrustworthy and unable to bond with others. And the “privacy” rationale told gay people that their very presence violated the rights and well-being of their straight counterparts.

The cumulative effect of all this festering anti-gay hostility was a poisonous and sometimes deadly atmosphere for gay and lesbian Americans serving their country, in which fear, distrust, and shame caused unimaginable stress and coping difficulties that could generate rage, substance abuse, and other destructive or risky behaviors.

Recent research has shown that such stress has a deep, lasting, and even physical impact. For instance, a 2016 University of California study found that incidents of “minority stress” measurably increased the stress hormone, cortisol, in lesbian, gay and bisexual subjects, thereby physically changing the brain. The findings suggest that stressors associated with life as a sexual minority can undercut physiological coping resources, impair judgment, and lead to a range of psychic health harms and destructive behaviors that can last a lifetime. A literature summary found numerous studies linking victimization among sexual minorities to mental health symptoms, including higher odds of depression and self-destructive behavior among those who were attacked or targeted for being LGBT.

The Supreme Court’s decision that racial bias is unacceptable in a court room should apply equally to bias on the basis of sexual orientation, which indisputably infected Rhines’ sentence. But Rhines’ case raises even bigger issues than jury bias. In taking Schaeffer’s life, Rhines committed an unpardonable offense. But the world repeatedly failed Rhines, and hence Schaeffer, as well, creating harms that were avoidable and whose ongoing injuries — including the imminent prospect of Rhines’ demise — are also avoidable. Homophobia has proven literally deadly, first striking Rhines as a youth, leaving lasting consequences which never dissipated, and now threatening to finish him off as a disabled adult. Scratch the surface of nearly any brutal crime and you can identify mitigating circumstances, not all of which ought to lighten a sentence. But this tragic story is a clear example of when bigotry and neglect — which have conspired to ruin first one life, and then another — constitute mitigating circumstances that call for mercy instead of vengeance for justice to be served.

Nathaniel Frank, author of Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, is director of the What We Know Project at Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality.