Published on: Tuesday, November 5, 2019

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court denied an application for stay of execution and petition for writ of certiorari in Rhines v. Young, No. 19-6477 (Nov. 4, 2019) (cert. denied). Charles Rhines, a death row prisoner in South Dakota, presented the Justices the following question presented: “[m]ust indigent death-sentenced state prisoners exhaust state remedies before a federal court may authorize access to expert services under 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f)?”

Mr. Rhines was sentenced to death in South Dakota in 1993. To prepare for clemency proceedings, his attorneys hired two mental health experts to evaluate him.  However, South Dakota bars access to a defendant by anyone, except defendant’s lawyer, without a court order.  Mr. Rhines’s lawyers went to federal court for an order granting their experts access to the defendant based on federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 3599, which provides indigent state capital defendants legal and expert services, including for clemency proceedings.  Finding it lacked jurisdiction, the district court denied his request.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that Mr. Rhines had not “fully exhausted” his state clemency remedies. 

Justice Sotamayor issued a two-page statement respecting the denial of certiorari, stating in part:

It is unclear from this record whether an expert evaluation is necessary to Rhines’ clemency application. Although Rhines’ experts believed there were additional grounds for investigation—including traumatic events that Rhines suffered earlier in his life—Rhines, as the State notes, has already been evaluated by several psychiatric experts in a different context. For that reason, I do not dissent from the denial of certiorari. I write separately, however, to note that this Court’s denial of certiorari does not represent an endorsement of the lower courts’ opinions. I also write separately to emphasize that clemency is not “a matter of mercy alone,” but rather is the “‘fail safe’ in our criminal justice system.” Harbison v. Bell, 556 U. S. 180, 192 (2009) (quoting Herrera v. Collins, 506 U. S. 390, 415 (1993)). By closing the prison doors in this context, a State risks rendering this fundamental process an empty ritual. 

Rhines was executed by lethal injection on November 4, 2019.  The Training Division provides resources to federal capital trial, appeal, and federal habeas counsel through the Capital Defense Network.