Reporter Steve Young and I each witnessed an execution by lethal injection at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in the space of two weeks in October of 2012. I witnessed Eric Robert's execution, he witnessed Don Moeller's.
We both wrote plenty about the executions and the people who were executed that fall. As you might expect, we talked plenty about the death penalty in the weeks and months that followed.
Last winter, Young mentioned that Charles Rhines, who is now the longest-serving death row inmate in the state, was a frequent letter-writer. Over the years, he’d chimed in on the Argus Leader’s editorial page about everything from inmate rights to Tinky Winky the Teletubby.
“If I were you, I might write him a letter and see if he’d talk,” Young said.
The idea was to see if Mr. Rhines could shed any light on life on South Dakota’s death row, whether two decades there had changed him, and whether he was at all effected by watching three men lead to the execution chamber.
More than 10 months and 100 pages later, we’re publishing two stories about his case, his views and his survivors. The stories come as Rep. Steve Hickey, a Sioux Falls pastor and Republican legislator, prepares to push for a ban on the death penalty. Rhines also ran out of state-level appeals last month, which was the 21st anniversary of his sentence.
Rhines was surprisingly open in his letters. Too open, in fact. Initially, he said he’d only write to me if got editorial approval of the story. Too many times, he wrote, his words had been “cherry-picked” and taken out of context by reporters.
I told him I couldn’t offer him story approval. No one gets that. I told him what I could do was post my questions and his answers on my blog and talk him through parts of the story over the phone if he was worried that I’d misunderstood him or mischaracterized what he’d said.
He wrote that he’s too much of an introvert to talk on the phone and that he hadn’t since 1998, but he agreed to answer my questions.
In hindsight, I should have known he’d take the offer as carte blanche to write anything on his mind and that he has more time to write down his thoughts than the average person. Anyone who’d dealt with him in the past could have warned me as much.
We couldn’t justify publishing everything. There was too much, too many accusations about too many people, and it would set a poor precedent.
I wrote last month to tell him we could only post portions of the letters and to give him the anticipated publication date. That date came and went without word from him (the story was held a week for a handful of reasons).
Last week, I hand-delivered a letter to the pentitentiary offering him another opportunity to say no to being quoted. On Thursday night, he called my cell phone.
He wasn’t nearly as interested in hearing how I’d used his letters as I’d expected. By the time he called, he’d concluded that I was planning to write whatever I wanted, regardless of his feelings on the matter.
“You’re just going to publish what you’re going to publish,” he said.
Oddly enough, former warden Doug Weber told me nearly the same thing a week before that. Weber didn’t like the idea of posting Rhines’ letters.
I did walk Rhines through the parts of the story where I used his quotes. I also reiterated that a lot of people would say a lot of things about him in the story that he probably wouldn’t like. I said I’d spoken to several of the people connected to the case and could write something without his input if he changed his mind.
At the end of our two conversations (inmate phone calls can only run 20 minutes at a time), I felt he was prepared for what would come.
This was an odd situation to be in, as a reporter. Rhines is a killer, a death row inmate whose actions have forever altered the lives of the people around him, a man periodically in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. He’s also a person with a unique vantage point on one of the most contentious moral issues facing the public.
I tried to treat him as much like any source as I could, given the restrictions of his living arrangement, the sensitivity of the story and the fact that he’s fighting for his life through appeals.
My hope is that the letters I post here and the stories we publish add something to our understanding of how the death penalty works in South Dakota.
Here are three of the Rhines letters, with slight redaction.