A matter of interpretation – Trial opens window into the deaf community

By Chuck Baldwin

I confess. When I first started covering the Daphne Wright trial – posting live updates from the courtroom on the Voices blog at argusleader.com – I expected most of the readers would be voyeurs, looking for the salacious details.

After all: Deaf, black lesbian cuts up a woman with a chain saw. It doesn’t get much better than that, if you’re into gruesome and titillating.

This wasn’t an assignment I relished.

But this trial and reaction to the blog took on a whole new meaning and opened my eyes to a world most of us don’t know about or rarely think about.

Who were the primary readers of the blog? The deaf community, here and around the country. And for all kinds of reasons.

First, deaf-on-deaf crime – especially murder – is rare, and it’s considered about the worst offense you can commit. You’re hurting one of your own.

Even nationwide, this is a small, tightknit community. People know each other. They talk to each other.

But there was another reason for the interest, a reason that most of us find difficult to understand – just look at the blog and the forums.

Deaf people feel out of place and discriminated against in the hearing world. American Sign Language, after all, is their first language. English is, at best, a second language. And they are Americans.

But how many of us try to learn their language? Who even thinks that communication might be our responsibility, too?

Add to that – Wright is black and a lesbian in mostly white, Bible-thumping South Dakota – and there was a real concern. Could she get a fair trial here?

Could she get a fair trial with no blacks, no lesbians, no deaf people on the jury?

Could she get a fair trial when Judge Brad Zell rejected a defense motion for consecutive translation, which is more accurate than the simultaneous translation used?

Could she get a fair trial when Zell rejected a defense motion to allow a certified deaf interpreter in the courtroom with her?

This isn’t about guilt or innocence. It’s about a fair trial. And many deaf people around the country have been absolutely certain South Dakota was trampling on Daphne’s rights – guilty or not.

Example: Regardless of guilt, could a black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1950s get a fair trial in Mississippi? That’s the way some militant, deaf radicals see it.

But there’s something awfully interesting about this. It turns out – based on blog responses and e-mails I’ve received – there’s no unanimity in the deaf community. Generally, deaf people outside of South Dakota are more concerned about the civil rights issues than deaf people right here.


First, you would expect more radicalism in large, urban areas than you would in small, rural cities. That’s true in just about every area of civil rights.

And, as was noted by one deaf blogger in Maryland, there’s a perception of guilt here. If she’s guilty, why does she need a fair trial?

There also seems to be a local belief – from people who know Wright and have been in the courtroom – that Wright understands the proceedings well enough, even without the motions sought by the defense.

Just for a second, consider also that maybe our local deaf community doesn’t consider South Dakotans as bigoted in such situations as folks elsewhere seem to think.

Downright ignorant of deaf issues, yes. But maybe not bigoted.

Don’t misunderstand those civil rights concerns, though. There’s an acknowledgment that Daphne Wright isn’t a nice person and has a checkered past. There’s also an acknowledgment that she could very well be guilty. And there’s sadness for Darlene VanderGiesen and her family.

But doesn’t everyone deserve a fair trial, to fully understand the proceedings and – if desired – be able to make a good case in front of a jury? If only innocent people deserve fair trials, who determines that they’re innocent?

This debate won’t be resolved here and won’t be resolved by this trial. Different interpretation, different interpreters wouldn’t change the evidence.

But it’s been a good debate to have – except for the knuckle-headed bigots who weighed in only to demonstrate their narrow-minded ignorance.

And we’ve been afforded a fascinating window onto a world most of us hearing folks – sadly – never knew existed.

I feel privileged. It’s just too damn bad someone had to die to make this happen.

(( Source:  Argus Leader ))

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