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ACLU makes final plea to Noem for Rapid City man's life, arguing anti-gay prejudice motivated death sentence

PIERRE, S.D. — The American Civil Liberties Union is making one final plea to Republican Gov. Kristi Noem to spare a longtime death row inmate, who the state is on course to execute come November.

The ACLU in a Monday, May 20, letter asked Noem to grant clemency to Charles Rhines, who was sentenced to death in 1993 for burglarizing a Rapid City doughnut shop and fatally stabbing an employee. But the ACLU, among other civil liberties and advocacy organizations, say Rhines was unjustly sentenced to death because he is homosexual.

“Mr. Rhines should not be executed on the basis of his sexual orientation," the ACLU wrote. "Our nation has a long and painful history of discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."

The civil liberties litigating group said "sentencing a man to death because of his sexual orientation stands out as cruel and inhumane" and "violates the basic guarantees of dignity and liberty that the people in South Dakota hold dear.”

According to the ACLU of South Dakota, "Three jurors (from Rhines' case) have made statements indicating that anti-gay prejudices played a significant role in the jury’s decision-making."

The ACLU-SD said that there is evidence that Rhines' jurors believed that he would "enjoy" an alternative sentence, life without parole in a men's prison, because of his sexual orientation. The ACLU-SD said that the judge presiding over Rhines' case did not address these alleged biases before Rhines' sentencing.

Rhines in July 2018 appealed his sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. A month later in August 2018, six groups — ACLU, ACLU-SD, Lambda Legal, GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National LGBT Bar Association — filed an amici curiae urging the court to allow Rhines to establish whether anti-gay bias motivated his death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court in April 2019 denied to take up his case. A month later in May, South Dakota filed its intent to obtain a warrant for Rhines' execution. Without a stay, the state is on course to execute Rhines in early November.

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