With guilty verdict, character of Wright now on trial

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The jury that convicted Daphne Wright of murder and kidnapping will convene again on Tuesday — this time to decide whether she lives or dies.

Under South Dakota law, lawyers present evidence in the penalty phase of capital punishment cases in a proceeding that occurs after the guilty verdict. At the end, jurors will choose whether to sentence Wright to life in prison or death by lethal injection.

Wright, 43, would become the first woman sentenced to death in the state if the jury picks the latter option.

On Thursday, the jury convicted Wright of first-degree premeditated murder, first-degree felony murder and kidnapping in the February 2006 death of Darlene VanderGiesen, 42, also a deaf woman from Sioux Falls.

The prosecution said Wright abducted VanderGiesen, killed her with a blow to the head or suffocation, or both, and dismembered her body with a chain saw.

One South Dakotan who knows a thing or two about murder trials is Attorney General Larry Long.

Long has not been part of the Wright case and would not talk about it. But he did outline what happens next.

Prosecutors “get to try the defendant’s character,” said Long.

In 1999, Long prosecuted the case against serial killer Robert Leroy Anderson, who committed suicide on death row in March 2003.

Long said testimony that might come out next week can include a person’s criminal history, financial condition and the impact of the crime on the victim’s family.

If a defendant “did beat his wife or dog, that’s going to be aggravating. If he didn’t, that’s going to be mitigating,” Long said.

The law requires prosecutors to prove beyond reasonable doubt one of 10 aggravating circumstances before jurors can impose the death penalty, he said.

In the Wright case, the element that applies is: “The offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.”

If jurors don’t think an “aggravator” was found, they can’t impose the death penalty, Long said. And even if they do decide that prosecutors proved the aggravating circumstance, they still don’t have to sentence someone to death, he said.

“It is simply given to them as an option. But all 12 of them have to agree, first of all, that the aggravator has been proven and then all 12 have to agree to impose the death penalty,” Long said.

Unlike the guilt phase, jurors who vote against death don’t have to give a reason, he said.

Prosecutors don’t have to introduce more evidence but they can, Long said.

Defense lawyers do plan to call more witnesses.

The defense’s job is to present mitigating evidence that shows jurors why the defendant should not be executed, Long said, adding that defense lawyers can put on any evidence they think might persuade jurors to spare their client.

“The door is wide open for the defense putting on any kind of evidence that the defense believes might sway a juror to opt for life in prison rather than the death penalty,” he said.

One possibility for the defense is to show how her deafness may have been an issue in the case.

At a pretrial hearing, a defense witness who is an expert on the deaf testified that it’s borderline whether Wright could understand what’s going on in the courtroom.

McCay Vernon of Florida said Wright reads at the third-grade level but either was deaf at birth or at 10 months of age, when she came down with rubella.

The rubella also may have caused some brain damage, though Wright has above-average intelligence, Vernon said.

She understands sign language well but may miss some things because it takes two to four times longer to say something through signing as normal speech, he said.

And Wright doesn’t easily grasp the definition of some legal terms, such as Miranda rights, Vernon said.

“When you use the term ‘rights,’ they mean right like to the right hand or right like correct,” he said at the time.

(( Source:  Sioux City Journal / AP ))

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