Death watch in Sioux Falls

There was a flurry of activity outside the South Dakota Penitentiary on Monday morning. Preparing to execute someone will do that.

I drive past the prison a few times a month, and on Monday, I made sure to check it out. Somehow it seemed different, more foreboding, grimmer, sadder.

Men in dark jackets moved about, and blockades were erected in driveways. A TV camera captured the buzz around the prison, and a man in a dark suit, holding a briefcase, walked down the sidewalk.

The man who caused all this waited inside. Charles Rhines was scheduled to be executed for the March 8, 1992, murder of Donnivan Schaeffer, who accidentally came upon Rhines as he burglarized a Rapid City doughnut shop.

Rhines, 63, had been battling the death penalty for much of his life. He received the sentence on Jan. 29, 1993. Around 8 p.m. Monday, after one final legal delay, it was carried out.

He has claimed jurors sentenced him to death because he is gay and bragged of his “inner animal” which he released through violent sex and, ultimately, in stabbing Schaeffer at Dig ’Em Donuts.

However, police and prosecutors said it was the horrific nature of his crime and his apparent joy in committing it, laughing as he recalled the details, that sent Rhines to Death Row.

He was the 20th man executed in South Dakota. The first was the notorious Jack McCall, who was hung for the Aug. 2, 1876, murder of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood in territorial days.

McCall actually was found not guilty by a hastily convened court in Deadwood but made the mistake of bragging of his shooting of Wild Bill in front of witnesses in Wyoming.

McCall was arrested and taken to Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory.

It was determined that the first trial was illegally staged and McCall was convicted in a second one. On March 1, 1877, he was hung, his body placed in a grave with the noose still around his neck. The grave is unmarked. There is a historical marker at the cemetery, but the exact location of McCall’s final resting place is unknown.

Grace and I stopped and read the sign during a trip to Yankton in 2017 and later that summer, met the actors who portray Wild Bill and his killer at a Deadwood saloon. They are pals, joking about their roles in this dark chapter in state history.

There are no laughs to the story of Rhines and his cruel crime. He was reportedly a very intelligent and cunning man.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, a former police officer, was involved in Rhines’ arrest and has said Rhines is the most disturbing person he came across in his law enforcement career.

I didn’t celebrate Rhines’ death, but nor did I mourn his demise. He was a vicious, dangerous man who lived 40 years longer than the young man he stabbed to death.

I have no desire to cover an execution and I have a few opportunities over the years. I was offered the editor’s job at a newspaper in Huntsville, Texas, where the Lone Star State has its execution chamber.

It’s a virtual assembly line of death, with 565 executions since 1982. The publisher promised stories that would run across the globe, since putting someone to death is worldwide news.

Huntsville is a city of about 38,000 people, and death is a leading business. The Huntsville Item covers all aspects of executions, and that just didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t pursue the job.

The job opens fairly often, I have noticed. Covering death is difficult work, I am sure, and doing it over and over and over would be troubling.

Just driving past the prison as the process was in motion to execute Rhines was a reminder of that.

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