The justices refused to halt the execution of South Dakota inmate Charles Rhines, who was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer during the burglary of a donut shop in Rapid City. Rhines had been scheduled to die this afternoon, but news reports indicated that the state had postponed his execution until the Supreme Court could rule on his appeals, which it did shortly after 7 p.m. EST tonight.
In 2017, Rhines and his lawyers began to prepare for a possible petition for clemency. His lawyers hired two mental health experts to evaluate him. But they were unable to see him, because South Dakota law bars anyone other than a defendant’s lawyer from having access to the defendant without an order from a state trial court. Rhines went to federal court, seeking authorization to obtain the experts’ services under a federal law that allows state prisoners who are sentenced to death to obtain legal and expert services, including for their clemency requests. The district court denied Rhines’ request, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld that decision, holding that Rhines had not “fully exhausted” his state clemency remedies. Rhines asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, arguing that the 8th Circuit’s decision turned the federal law on its head: The whole point of the statute, he contended, is to make sure that an inmate has access to the services that he needs to help him with his clemency application.
The justices turned away Rhines’ request without any recorded dissents. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote separately to explain that she did not dissent from the decision because it wasn’t clear “whether an expert evaluation is necessary to” Rhines’ clemency application, especially when Rhines “has already been evaluated by several psychiatric experts in a different context.” Sotomayor stressed that the denial of review “does not represent an endorsement of the lower courts’ opinions” and she emphasized that clemency is “the fail safe in our criminal justice system. By closing the prison doors in this context,” she concluded, “a State risks rendering this fundamental process an empty ritual.”
In a separate petition, Rhines – who is gay – had asked the justices to order a hearing in federal district court on his claim that his death sentence was tainted by anti-gay bias. One of the jurors who sentenced Rhines to death thought that Rhines “shouldn’t be able to spend his life with men in prison,” while another said that “we’d be sending him where he wants to go” by sentencing Rhines to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the justices also denied this request without any recorded dissents.
Earlier today, Rhines asked the justices to put his execution on hold to give him time to challenge the drugs that the state planned to use in its lethal-injection protocol. But this plea for relief was also unsuccessful, and the justices’ disposition of all three stay requests cleared the way for Rhines’ execution to move forward.