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Deciding Against Death

By Lou Raguse

A killer’s fate rested in their hands, and the jury of eleven women and one man chose to show mercy.

The jury that found Daphne Wright guilty of murder sentenced her to life in prison instead of the death penalty.

Death would have taken a unanimous vote, and their final split was 7 for life, 1 for death, and 4 undecided. Six of those jurors sat down to explain how they decided against death.

When jury selection began, some of them didn’t know what they were in for.

“I had no idea it was going to be as big as it was,” says Brenda Lunski. “It was beyond anything I could have imagined.”

These six people were seated on the jury that would decide Daphne Wright’s guilt or innocence – and ultimately whether she lives or dies for her crime.

As the trial progressed, witnesses and evidence quickly began to prove that Wright kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered Darlene VanderGiesen.

“The roommate Jacki Chesmore was a key player,” says Craig Dolan.

“There was a lot of DNA evidence that was hard to refute,” says Stacey Nelson.

“The interview that the defendant had with the detective was so telling,” says Marilyn Van Zanten.

“You could literally connect the dots,” says jury foreperson Erin Frost-Elshami.

“We did a very good job of keeping an open mind and going over every angle that any one of the attorneys threw at us,” says Mary Kirkus. “And it just, in the end, was overwhelming.”

The jurors stayed composed throughout the overwhelming testimony and gruesome photos shown at the trial. In deliberation, they played devil’s advocate, looking at all the possibilities.

“To hear all the evidence for two weeks, then to talk about the crime and the death and literally role play what happened to this person, it was draining,” Frost-Elshami says.

And when the judge read the guilty verdict these jurors returned, the seemingly emotionless Wright began to cry. That’s when the heaviness of their duty really took hold.

“That’s probably one of the most difficult things I’ve, as a person, you never think you’re going to be the one that convicts someone of first-degree murder. Premeditated murder. You just don’t want to say that to another human being,” Van Zanten says.

“I think that brought her to a level that we had not seen before,” Dolan says. “And it brought more of a humanization to her rather than looking at her like some sort of a monster.”

But the jury’s job wasn’t done yet. They still had the penalty phase of the trial, which began with Darlene VanderGiesen’s parents sharing how their daughter’s murder affects them.

“I don’t think there was anyone in that courtroom who wasn’t brought to tears,” Kirkus says.  “Listening to the VanderGiesens actually took a weight off the jury’s shoulders. The couple from Rock Valley seemed so genuine. So forgiving.”

“You didn’t feel any hatred. They just miss their daughter. And that helped us in deliberation.  Because we weren’t trying to vindicate Darlene by punishing Daphne. Because we knew the VanderGiesens didn’t want that,” Frost-Elshami says.

“What John Q. Public thinks doesn’t matter that much to me,” Nelson says. “In the end, I wanted to make sure Darlene’s parents supported what we decided as well. They meant more to what I think than anybody.”

After about five hours the jurors unanimously decided Wright had a depraved mind when she killed VanderGiesen. That made the case eligible for the death penalty. It would have taken another unanimous vote for Wright to die. But seven of them chose life.

“In the end, we made the right choice,” Dolan says.

“And in the end, we were the 12 people that were looking at Daphne,” Frost-Elshami says. “We saw her mother.

We saw her history. We saw a lot about the person that we would have sentenced to death. And you can’t lose sight of the fact it’s a person.”

Still, it was largely important that, this time, the jury read Wright the verdict.

“I wish we could have tagged on a little part at the end of it saying that we showed mercy on Daphne that she didn’t show on Darlene,” Nelson says. “And I hope she realizes we didn’t have to do that.”

They didn’t have to, but in putting an end to the saga has affected so many, these jurors spared Daphne Wright’s life.

“We wanted the killing to stop,” Frost-Elshami says.

The jurors say they kept their votes in the death penalty phase anonymous. But two of them said from the beginning of deliberations that they wouldn’t switch their vote to death.

(( Source:  KELOLAND TV ))