David Lias

I woke up Tuesday morning not feeling any different than I did Monday morning and I’m guessing you did, too, unless you came down with the flu or some other ailment during that time.

Things are going pretty much business as usual in our part of the world we call South Dakota even though, collectively, we killed a man Monday night.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported Monday that Charles Rhines was scheduled to be executed at 1:30 p.m. for the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer inside a Rapid City doughnut shop, but delays as South Dakota officials awaited a U.S. Supreme Court decision pushed it into the evening. At 6:30 p.m., the Supreme Court denied all three of Rhines appeals, and Rhines was pronounced dead at 7:39 p.m.

"Today, I would like to remember Donnivan Schaeffer," Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg said following Rhines’ execution. "He was an intelligent man set to graduate from Dakota Tech. He was an archer who loved hunting and fishing. He was funny, kind and a hard worker. ... He was engaged to be married. If he was with us today, he would be looking ahead to his 50th birthday."

"Our son would have been a great asset to society. ... He has given us so much strength and good, and if each one can live a little bit of that strength and goodness and instead of being on the other end of that stick, this would be a much better world," said Donnivan’s mother, Peggy Schaeffer.

The Schaeffer family handled this tragedy with “a grace that is simply inspiring,” according to Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo.

No doubt about it, Rhines did a very horrible thing and followed up with behavior that send chills down one’s spine.

As the Argus Leader reported in 2014, Schaeffer, the victim, walked in on Rhines robbing a doughnut shop.

Rhines stabbed Schaeffer, a 22-year-old courier, to death to avoid being caught.

The basics of the Schaeffer murder only hint at the disturbing details that set it apart from a typical homicide and ultimately put Rhines on death row.

The crime went unsolved for months as Schaeffer's mother pleaded for help through the media, noting that her son was an innocent victim who begged for his life.

Rhines attended the funeral, consoled mourners and signed the guest book before fleeing to Seattle to avoid further questioning. He confessed to his roommate at the time, then kept tabs on him to keep him from telling police.

He threatened to murder his roommate's girlfriend, taunting her with gruesome details of that night and saying he was her boyfriend's lover.

And when Rhines finally admitted what he had done, the heartlessness of his confession gave a South Dakota detective nightmares.

South Dakota executed four men between 1877 and its admission to the union in 1889, and 10 men between that time and the abolition of South Dakota’s death penalty in 1915. Each of these death sentences were carried out by hanging.

The death penalty was reinstated in 1918 and eventually the electric chair became the sole method of execution in the state. George Sitts was the only person electrocuted in South Dakota.

From 1877, when Jack McCall was hung for shooting Wild Bill Hickok to 1947, when George Sitts was executed for killing a state DCI agent, there were a total of 15 death row inmates put to death by the state.

There were no executions in the United States between 1967 and 1977. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment statutes in Furman v. Georgia, reducing all death sentences pending at the time to life imprisonment.

Subsequently, a majority of states passed new death penalty statutes, and the court affirmed the legality of capital punishment in the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia. Since then, more than 7,800 defendants have been sentenced to death; of these, more than 1,500 have been executed. A total of 165 who were sentenced to death in the modern era were exonerated before their execution. As of April 1, 2018, over 2,700 were still on death row.

The death penalty was reinstated post-Furman in 1979 in South Dakota. The state adopted lethal injection as its method for carrying out executions that year.

Our state seems to making up for that 60-year gap of no executions in just the last decade or so.

Elijah Page was put to death in 2007. Eric Robert and Donald Moeller were executed with about a two week span in October 2012.

Rodney Berget died of capital punishment in our state in 2018, and this week, Rhines was executed.

South Dakota now has just one inmate on death row. Briley Piper was sentenced to death for the 2000 murder of Chester Poage, 19, who was beaten and stabbed near Spearfish. Elijah Page was put to death for the murder in 2007.

On Monday, according to news reports, about 25 people huddled together outside of the State Penitentiary Jameson Annex to pray for everyone involved in the execution of Charles Rhines.

Scattered among them were signs that read “South Dakota Stop Killing,” “Jesus: He without sin, cast the first stone” and “It’s not for us to judge.” Some wore buttons that read “Stop Executions.”

But just across the street stood a quieter group of protesters. Three people leaned up against the Ronald “RJ” Johnson Training Academy building, talking about news of appeals and sharing personal stories. They didn’t have signs or a program – their presence was simply meant to support the victim’s family and for Rhines’ execution.

I’m with the first group. I believe it’s time for South Dakota to join 21 other states (including North Dakota) and abolish the death penalty.

I can cite articles written by people cite facts that back up my stance. “Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. They felt the same way over ten years ago, and nothing has changed since then,” states an article published by “Amnesty International.”

In an article published Dec. 2, 2016, John A. Tures, a political science professor at LaGrange College, noted that research conducted by his students showed that having the death penalty means you’re more likely to be a state with a high murder rate as well, just as states which have eliminated the death penalty are, more likely than not, to have abolished the practice, or never ratified it.

Those findings, he concludes, aren’t good when you’re trying to show that the death penalty deters serious crime.

I also discovered what looks to be a wonderful website called ProCon.org. As its name implies, it finds and publishes articles both supporting and against important contemporary issues. In early 2017, it compiled 10 articles that claim that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. At the same time, it published 10 articles that support capital penalty, all stating that it does serve as a deterrent.

This research reminds me of lines of an essay that I read long ago but have been unable to uncover despite Google. I’m paraphrasing here, but at one point the essay’s writer states that the death penalty is wrong, noting that we don’t steal from thieves or rape the rapists, but we insist on murdering the murderers.

District 17 Sen. Art Rusch of Vermillion has introduced legislation in recent years to try to end the death penalty in our state. He hasn’t had much luck.

When he talks about his opposition to the death penalty, he, in a way, describes it as cruel and unusual for everyone involved: The judge who presides in the case; the jury of citizens who must decide whether a person given due process should live or die; and the friends and family of both the accused and the victim.

He’s experienced all of this firsthand. Rusch, a retired First Circuit judge, was behind the bench during Moeller’s trial.

I know there are plenty of people with opposing views in South Dakota, who strongly defend having capital punishment as an option here in our state. Proponents will point out that people want it. They’ll produce polls that show that the public overwhelmingly supports putting people convicted of certain serious deadly crimes to death.

All I can do is respond with my belief that we can maintain a clear sense of justice in South Dakota without the death penalty.

Society’s worst offenders merit no sympathy. They’ll get none here. If you’re the victim of a crime, especially a murder that’s ripped a jagged hole in your life where a loved one used to be, you have a right to be outraged and emotional. You’re entitled to think of fundamental safeguards like due process and a presumption of innocence as annoyances.

It’s not the victim’s responsibility to be calm and dispassionate, but it is the law’s. Courts must deal firmly and decisively with murderers, but that isn’t happening under a scheme that deals out death penalties with whimsical unpredictability and makes victims wait years, even decades, for resolution.

Life in prison without parole is a better solution.


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