Prejudice expected from white, hearing jury
A Sioux Falls murder trial involving both a deaf defendant and victim – but a hearing jury – has drawn national interest and outcries from deaf people who worry it’s all but impossible to conduct a fair trial.
Daphne Wright – who also is black and a lesbian – could get the death penalty if convicted of kidnapping or murdering Darlene VanderGiesen, who prosecutors say she then dismembered with a chain saw.
At least half of Minnehaha County’s largest courtroom was filled throughout the first week of testimony as prosecutors made their case against Wright. The audience has included friends of the victim and reporters, whose online news reports are being closely watched by deaf advocates concerned that accommodations for Wright are inadequate and that her multiple-minority status makes it unlikely an all-white jury will view the case without prejudice.
“It is obvious that she was targeted because she is (a) lesbian deaf black woman,” wrote Ricky D. Taylor, a deaf and gay Washington, D.C., blogger on RidorLIVE.com.
Elizabeth Gillespie, who keeps a blog under the name Mishka Zena on deafread.com, has tracked coverage of the case from Maryland, where Wright once lived.
“We know that Daphne Wright has four major strikes against her before the beginning of the trial. She is African-American, deaf, gay and woman,” Gillespie wrote. As “a deaf person, she is entitled to a fair trial.”
Wright’s public defenders filed several pretrial motions to that effect, most of which were denied.
Help at hand
But the courtroom is filled with specialists to help Wright – and prosecutors and the judge have said those people are there to ensure a fair trial.
Five American Sign Language interpreters have been in the courtroom during the proceedings. Two take turns signing at the front of the court, and a third interprets for deaf witnesses. The other two sit at the defense table helping Wright communicate with her lawyers.
In pretrial motion hearings, prosecutors often argued that the court should treat deaf defendants like it treats those who speak a foreign language, which explains the interpreters. Judge Brad Zell has largely agreed with that argument, with a few exceptions.
Zell rejected one request for brief pauses throughout proceedings that would allow interpreters additional time to translate. He also refused to find an interpreter who is herself deaf, a sticking point for both Wright and deaf advocates.
The defense argued that step would have ensured that Wright understands what’s going on in court because a deaf person whose native language is sign language learns and thinks differently from a hearing person and would be better able to describe concepts to Wright.
“I don’t consider these flaws minor, especially when a deaf person’s life is at stake,” Gillespie wrote in a blog entry. “Yes, the defense lawyers are doing an extraordinary job. It’s the court that restricts their hands.”
Screen and shield
In addition to the interpreters, the court reporter’s typed transcript is projected in real-time on monitors at the judge’s and defense table – prosecutors didn’t find it useful – and on a large screen in front of the audience.
Two partitions have shielded Wright’s hands from most of the audience except for the row of seats assigned to the ASL-illiterate media. Minnehaha County Public Defender Traci Smith said Wright has relied more on the interpreter’s hands than the real-time monitor.
Wright has used both written notes and the interpreters to communicate with her lawyers. The proceedings have not stopped for those discussions, but they have been somewhat rare. Wright had more often shown confusion during pretrial hearings, which dealt with more complex legal arguments.
Like Wright, deaf audience members have more often watched the ASL interpreter than the real-time transcript, which has had the unintended effect of helping reporters follow along and record complete quotes. If they miss something, they can look up and read the past few minutes of what’s said in court.
White jury worries
Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson’s decision to seek the death penalty attracted several pretrial motions and the attention of deaf bloggers.
Several bloggers and Wright’s lawyers have pointed to an almost all-white jury pool as evidence the system is working against Wright.
“Her lesbian lifestyle and her race can be viewed unacceptably in an area where both are not embraced openly,” Gillespie wrote. “These two, on top of her being profoundly deaf with limited English skills, do put her at a great disadvantage.”
(( Source:Â Argus Leader / Photo by Lloyd B. Cunningham ))