Unanimous vote needed for death penalty

By Josh Verges

Daphne Wright’s life could be in the jury’s hands by the end of today.

Defense lawyer Jeff Larson said in court Monday that he will call only three significant witnesses today in hopes of persuading 11 women and one man to sentence the 43-year-old Sioux Falls woman to life in prison without parole.

They are a psychologist, a law professor who specializes in deaf issues and Wright’s mother. Wright herself will not testify.

Wright was convicted Thursday of kidnapping and premeditated murder.

Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson said he should need one hour to make his case today, plus another 30 minutes for argument.

He must prove that Wright’s crimes and the ensuing chain-saw dismemberment of 42-year-old Darlene VanderGiesen’s body were “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind or an aggravated battery to the victim.”

If the jury finds that aggravating factor exists, they then will decide whether Wright should get life in prison or death by injection.

Larson renewed arguments in a court hearing Monday that his client’s disability and race – Wright is deaf and black – should prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

Nelson has prosecuted 21 people on first-degree murder charges since he took office in 1989, and in five of those cases, he filed a pretrial notice of intent to seek the death penalty. This is the first time he will ask a jury to make that decision.

Larson acknowledged that Nelson did not seek death for his prior three black murder defendants but said that in each of Nelson’s five capital cases, the victim was a white woman.

“When a minority victim has been involved, the state’s attorney’s office has never filed a death penalty notice,” Larson said in support of a motion to preclude the death penalty because of discrimination.

Nelson said his decision to pursue death has nothing to do with race but much to do with the dismemberment and disposal of the victim’s body.

He also noted that Wright is his first capital defendant to take the case to trial, suggesting he’d have spared her life had she pleaded guilty.

“In every other case where the state indicated an intention to seek the death penalty, the defense approached the state with an offer to plead guilty and accept responsibility,” Nelson said, “and as Minnehaha County State’s Attorney, that is immensely important to me in terms of whether the death penalty is appropriate.”

Judge Brad Zell denied the defense motion, saying he’s unconvinced there is a pattern in the prosecutor’s decisions.

Larson also asked the judge to reconsider his denial of a motion to preclude the death penalty based on deafness. He said the Florida Supreme Court reversed a death sentence for a deaf defendant in part because of his disability.

Deputy prosecutor Keith Allenstein said the Florida defendant’s brain damage and young age were bigger factors in that decision. Zell said he knew the details of the case when he made his initial ruling.

In a separate motion, the judge rejected Larson’s argument that evidence of dismemberment by chain saw should not be presented.

Larson said the Tennessee Supreme Court decided that mutilating a dead body can help prove a depraved mind at the time of the crime, but only if it happened soon after the victim is killed.

Prosecutors say Wright waited two days before dismembering VanderGiesen because she didn’t have money to buy a chain saw.

In arguing for the state, Allenstein said Wright’s two-day delay “has nothing to do with a lack of depravity of mind as it does a lack of financial funds.”

He added there is evidence of burns and other cuts, which might have been inflicted shortly after death.

Zell again denied the defense motion, saying the concerns will be addressed in jury instructions. He said it’s up to the jury, not the judge, to decide if the dismemberment proves a depraved mind.

(( Source:  Argus Leader ))

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