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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Not how justice is supposed to work

By Leonard Pitts Jr. Tribune News Service

So it looks like Charles Rhines is going to be executed – and it’s probably because he’s gay.

Well, not only that. There’s also the matter of his committing an especially heinous murder in 1992. Rhines, caught burglarizing a doughnut shop in Rapid City, South Dakota, by an employee named Donnivan Schaeffer, stabbed the 22-year-old in the abdomen and back. Then, as Schaeffer pleaded for his life, Rhines thrust the blade into the base of his skull.

Point being that this guy is no hero or martyr. He is undeserving of pity.

That said, the circumstances of his case – more specifically, his sentencing – ought to concern anyone who believes in equal justice under the law. It seems that, in deciding what sentence to impose – death or life without parole – jurors worried that, as a gay man, Rhines might enjoy prison. They thought condemning him to that all-male environment would be like the old folk tale about Br’er Rabbit tricking Br’er Fox into throwing him into the briar patch where he wanted to be all along.

So they gave him death.

Evidence of the effect of Rhines’ sexuality on the panel’s reasoning abounds. Jurors sent the judge a note asking if he would be housed in general population, if he might “brag” to “young men” about his crime, if he might ever marry or have conjugal visits, if he would have a cellmate. As if that weren’t enough, several jurors later issued sworn declarations affirming how homophobia warped their deliberations.

One juror was quoted as saying that putting a gay man in prison would be “sending him where he wants to go.” Another quoted a fellow juror as saying Rhines “shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison.” A third reported that, “There was a lot of disgust” in the jury room. “This is a farming community.”

That sort of thinking, should it need saying, is idiotic. Unfortunately, it made sense to the only people whose opinions mattered.

As it happens, the Supreme Court ruled last year that jury deliberations can be impeached if it can be proven they were tainted by racial bias. Rhines’ lawyers reasoned that if racism is enough to question a jury’s decision, homophobia should be, too.

But last week, the court declined to hear Rhines’ appeal. It’s a disappointing decision. If equal justice means anything, it means a judge or jury may not heap an added penalty based on some facet of cultural identity. Whether grounded in race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, bias has no place in our legal system. The high court had a chance to make that clear, but punted instead.

And Rhines got kicked in the teeth by Lady Justice. No, it couldn’t happen to a more-deserving individual. But the issue at stake here is a lot bigger than him.

It’s also bigger than anyone’s position on the death penalty. The view from this corner is that capital punishment is a barbaric vestige of frontier justice, biased in just about every way – race, gender, class, geography – that a thing can be. Beyond that, it is expensive, immoral and irreversible.

But even the person who supports state executions should be unsettled by this non-ruling, should want the questions raised here definitively decided as soon as possible. Either the ideal of equal justice is a foundation of our system – or it is not.

If it is, how can we countenance the notion that sexual orientation – or religion, or race or anything else – can so brazenly function as a thumb on the scale? That’s not how justice is supposed to work. Whether the sentence is life or death, one thing should be immutably true: in America, you are punished for what you did.

Not for what you are.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him via email at

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