Daphne’s Trial


One case guides different people to meet and bond unlike ever before

Always, they were Darlene and Daphne – even to people who never knew them, even to people who loved one and perhaps hated the other.

That’s how murder trials are, an odd mixture of family reunion and funeral gathering. A peculiar amalgam of introduction and eulogy.

In much the same way soldiers find lifelong buddies while under fire in a foxhole, people at a murder trial develop a temporary closeness of shared experiences and emotions.

You didn’t even have to be in the courtroom for the two-week trial of Daphne Wright, convicted Thursday of murdering Darlene VanderGiesen. Deaf bloggers around the country felt the same elation, loss and sadness.

“I feel relieved that justice is served, but it is sad that it didn’t bring Darlene’s life back, and we may lose Daphne, too,” wrote Amy Cohen Efron, a school psychologist and deaf blogger from Tucker, Ga.

It’s not over. This coming week, we begin the sentencing phase to determine if there will be an execution.

But even if the tone changes for members of the media, family, friends, hangers-on and curious spectators, they still will be Darlene and Daphne, not Darlene VanderGiesen and Daphne Wright. People in the court got to know them, even as the spectators and participants got to know each other.

The VanderGiesens and close friends of Darlene were the most dedicated in attending the trial – there from beginning to end – from as far away as Downs, Kan., a 6 1/4 hour drive. That’s the home base of the VanderGiesen clan. Others came from Iowa.

Dee and Gene VanderGiesen, Darlene’s parents, always sat in the same place – aisle end of the second row. Gene on the outside, Dee next to him. Just behind Gene, his brother, Junior, from Kansas. Next to Dee, Darlene’s sister, Sandra. And then her husband, Jeff.

Carolyn and Jim Tucker, Daphne’s mother and stepfather, were there most of the time. They sat alone and didn’t socialize, other than a polite “hello, how are you today?” every now and then.

There also were people from the Sioux Falls deaf community.

“I knew most of the people in court, on the friends’ side,” said Stacie Miller, who is deaf, in an e-mail. “We are a close-knit deaf community.”

Others popped in and out:

  • Beth O’Toole, a criminal justice professor at the University of Sioux Falls, was the first to arrive on the first day with two students. They were in line by 7:30 a.m. “We didn’t know how early to come,” she said. “I’m glad we didn’t get here at 6:30 (when the courthouse opens).”
  • Carol Manning of Omaha grew up with Darlene in Rock Valley. She’s deaf and now teaches American Sign Language. “My mom attended the court … She encouraged me to attend the court and watch the overall trial. Deaf professionals need to assess Daphne’s comunications skills to see if she understands what is going on,” she wrote in an e-mail.
  • Melissa Draganac-Hawk, a deaf ASL professor at Augustana College was there more than once.
  • Laura Hinton, who played softball with Darlene, was there every day. “Guilty and soon,” she signed after the jury retired to deliberate.
  • Fred Smith, public defender Traci Smith’s father-in-law, and defense lawyer Jason Adams’ parents were there. “Just to watch,” Smith said.
  • Jessee Perkins, a USF psychology major who’s interning at the public defender’s office.

    Other’s couldn’t attend but wanted to be there to share the experience.”I’m just looking forward to Daffy getting the death penalty,” Cassidy Simmons, a friend of Darlene’s who also knew Daphne, said in a relay phone call. “You just can’t bring people back, but that would satisfy everyone’s need.”

    Sheriff’s Deputy Donnette Kelly road hard on everyone, handing out badges with “M” for media or “F” for family and directing people to their spots on the courtroom benches.

    Everyone knew the seriousness of the business before the court, but that didn’t stop the laughing and joking, as people got to know each other. Even the judge.

    On one occasion, Judge Brad Zell came off the bench during a break to chat. Zell’s thinning hair is obvious as he sits on the bench, but up close you also see that his hair in the back is curling down over his collar.

    “I haven’t had time” for a haircut, he said, his fingers brushing up the curls.

    Whenever possible, conversation turned away from the grim business at hand. Kelly, for instance, spent Easter with her two grandchildren. Bailiff Les Bly looked forward to a turkey-hunting trip – this week – near Gregory.

    “It’s the best hunting,” Bly said.

    Always, there were complaints and jokes about the hard, wooden pews. The VanderGiesen family, sitting in a second row just behind the news media, lined up cushions all along the bench to make the long hours easier.

    “That just kills your back,” said Sioux Falls Police Det. Troy Duncan, who came back after testimony to watch closing arguments.

    No one ever forgot, though, what brought everyone together. There were tense, unpleasant times, of course. But underneath even the good-natured teasing and laughing, everyone knew what this was all about.

    And while everyone prepares to gather again this week, there’s relief that one part of this is over.

    “I can sense peace around us this morning,” wrote Miller, who knew both Darlene and her sister. “I am really grateful for getting to know her before she died.”

    (( Source:  Argus Leader ))

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