Verdict of deaf would be historic – No deaf inmates on death row in U.S.

By Terry Woster

Daphne Wright, the 43-year-old Sioux Falls woman convicted last week of brutally murdering Darlene VanderGiesen, now must plead for her own life.

Minnehaha County jurors will start considering Tuesday whether to sentence her to life in prison or lethal injection. If they decide on the latter, Wright will join 49 other women on the nation’s death rows – one in federal prison; the others in state lockups – compared with about 3,500 men on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Wright would become the first woman in South Dakota awaiting an execution, and the information center said it has no data that shows any deaf women – or men – currently on death row.

Wright is also unique in that she is black, deaf and homosexual – a multiple-minority status that her public defenders said raised concerns about her ability to get a fair trial with a hearing and predominantly white, heterosexual jury.

The prosecutors’ case hinged on the assertion that Wright was jealous of VanderGiesen, 42, of Rock Valley, Iowa, because she was friends with Wright’s former lover. That devolved into violent rage, prosecutors maintained, as Wright killed and then used a chain saw to cut up and dispose of her victim’s body.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that the majority of women on death row are there because of similarly gruesome and violent acts. He also said that most of such women were convicted of killing a person they knew well or a person otherwise woven into their family or love lives.

“It is true, if you look at women on death row and the women that have been executed, they were related in some way to their victims,” Dieter said. “They killed somebody they knew – a husband, a lover, a child. You don’t find that as often with men,” who are more often involved in killings that spring from other crimes such as robberies and drug deals.

Difficult decision

Jurors in the Wright case – the same people who will decide her sentence – are under instruction not to publicly discuss the case.

But one of three juror alternates, who is no longer involved, said she found the case emotionally and physically exhausting. No one relished the opportunity of debating the merits of Wright’s guilt by taking apart the evidence and putting it together, but they were open-minded and heeded lawyers’ instructions of using common sense and no emotion.

“This was not fun and games,” said Lisa Cox, 35, of Sioux Falls.

Deciding Wright’s fate is certain to be difficult, legal experts say.

Richard Cohen, president and chief executive officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Washington, D.C., said it is clear jurors have honed in on Wright’s guilt. But they are likely to consider the “tremendous stress” on a minority individual like Wright – with that pressure aggravated further by simultaneously existing in both the minority deaf and the gay communities.

“I think the world is probably not hospitable to that person anywhere in the country,” he said. “So I think coping with those stressors would be hard. Then you throw in love and sex and it’s a highly combustible situation.”

All of that, he suggested, could give jurors reason to shy away from execution.

What’s more, women are more likely to oppose the death penalty than men, and with a jury of 11 women and one man, the odds are in Wright’s favor.

On the other hand, Dieter said, in some cases juries have more harshly judged women defendants because of stereotypes of women as more gentle and caring. When a woman breaks from that mold and commits a gruesome crime, jurors have viewed the defendant as a monster, far from acceptable societal norms and therefore too dangerous to be kept alive, Dieter said.

“It’s almost as though the jury sees her as different from women in general,” he said.

Legal process

The legal process by which women receive a death row conviction differs little from the process for a man.

Gov. Mike Rounds, who did not respond to an interview request, has supported the death penalty in extreme cases.

Dieter, however, said an analysis of national data indicates a woman’s chance of receiving clemency are slightly higher than for a man.

The percentage of women receiving clemency since 1968 – excluding Illinois’ decision to empty its death row – represents about 10 percent of all clemencies, he said, even though they account for only about 1 percent of the nation’s death row population.

“Whatever the reasons, the odds are a bit better,” he said.

While the number of women in prison is increasing across the country – and in South Dakota, state numbers show – the number of women on death row tends to remain fairly constant, Dieter said.

According to the South Dakota Department of Corrections, as of July 2006, there were four inmates on death row – all men. That includes Elijah Page, who is scheduled to be executed this summer. As of the same date, state data show there were 156 inmates serving life sentences. Of those, 151 were men and five were women.

S.D. death row

The South Dakota women’s prison in Pierre does not have a designated death row.

State prison officials expect that, if sentenced to death, Wright would go to the women’s prison, but they say they won’t be making an official plans for death row accommodations until after sentencing.

“It would be inappropriate to go into that until the person is sentenced and in our custody,” said Michael Winder, spokesman for the state corrections department.

Nationally, conditions for women awaiting execution are similar to that for men.

Death row inmates are housed alongside other convicts in a special area at the men’s prison in Sioux Falls.

They are, however, handled differently than any other inmates. They are kept in their cells all day, except for a brief recreation period. They eat, sleep, exercise and shower without contact with any other inmates.

When they are out of their cells for any reason, such as to go to health services, strict security guidelines mandate all other inmates be locked up, certain security doors and gates are closed, and several officers escort the death row inmate.

(( Source:  Argus Leader ))

5 thoughts on “Verdict of deaf would be historic – No deaf inmates on death row in U.S.”

  1. I’m sure there are few deaf inmate who awaiting on death row. Judge Zell found three (I believe there is more) one in Texas 1951, Florida 1996 (or 98?), and Illinois 2006.

  2. It’s an interesting case to follow…do you think Daphne Wright had a ‘fair’ trail? I already predict the guilty verdict for her because of racism and homophobia in that area. I am not saying she should not be guilty. What she has done is wrong…could anyone find any other Deaf inmate(s) on the death row at this point or in the past?

  3. There is one on California Death Row, one in NC, one already executed in TX (2000— woman) one in MO and another one in fL (2002 but dunno if he got it communted to life)

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