By Josh Verges
The word “life” from the jury foreperson’s mouth Wednesday night swept months of anxiety out of a Minnehaha County courtroom.
Daphne Wright, 43, will not die for kidnapping and murdering Darlene VanderGiesen.
Wright turned to her mother after the verdict and exchanged guarded smiles.
The victim’s mother, Dee VanderGiesen, later read a statement directed to Wright.
“There are no words to describe the hurt you have brought … yet we no longer feel the anger and vengeful thoughts,” Dee VanderGiesen said. “Our prayer is for you to at last have peace in your heart and soul.”
Dee VanderGiesen and her husband, Gene, said afterward that they were pleased with how seriously the jury took the case. The victim’s mother said she had no expectation for the sentence.
“We were at total peace with whatever the jury decided,” she said.
Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson said there was “immense relief on everybody’s part.”
The jury of 11 women and one man agreed with Nelson that the killing and chain saw dismemberment revealed Wright had a depraved mind. But they said life in prison without parole is a more appropriate punishment than death by injection.
Wright would have been the first woman on South Dakota’s death row. She is also black, deaf and homosexual, which had her lawyers and mother raising questions about a fair trial.
VanderGiesen, who died at 42, was also deaf.
Prosecutors said it was VanderGiesen’s platonic friendship with Wright’s ex-girlfriend, Sallie Collins, that drove the woman to murder on Feb. 1, 2006.
Testimony revealed Wright bought a chain saw two days later and chopped the body into four pieces. When the last of the remains were recovered six weeks later, VanderGiesen’s family held a second funeral in their hometown of Rock Valley, Iowa.
Nelson said he was satisfied with the outcome, which came after nine hours of deliberation – two more than the same jury took deciding guilt.
“We didn’t lose anything today. We won our case on Thursday when the jury convicted the defendant of premeditated murder,” Nelson said.
“When a group of citizens decides, the penalty is right,” he added.
When the jury convicted her last week, they had Judge Brad Zell read the verdict. On Wednesday, foreperson Erin Frost-Elshami read the decision.
Zell then released the jurors and delivered the official sentence minutes later, saying Wright would serve three consecutive life sentences without parole in Pierre or Sioux Falls.
Wright, who did not testify during the trial, also declined to speak at her sentencing.
Minutes after the sentencing, Dee VanderGiesen approached Wright’s mother and step-father, Carolyn and Jim Tucker, held their hands and spoke for a minute.
The Tuckers live in Maryland but were in court for all but the first day of testimony. Wright’s mother expressed frustration with the jury, which had no deaf or black members.
Wright’s lawyers from the county public defender’s office left the courthouse without comment, walking with Tucker and her husband. They did the same after last week’s guilty verdict.
In closing arguments this morning, Nelson reminded jurors of the physical evidence that convinced him to seek death: the victim’s burned upper body, the plastic bag over her head, cutting wounds on her feet and that she was found in four pieces.
But Jeff Larson, chief deputy public defender, said the case does not “go along with the worst of the worst” for which the death penalty is reserved.
Wright did not dismember the body for her own “perverse pleasure,” Larson said, but because her other attempts to get rid of the body failed. Her mind was not depraved, he said, it just lacked problem-solving skills.
Larson said he was scared for his client and that he didn’t know what the jury wanted to hear.
He offered legal arguments that the dismemberment, because it came two days after death, does not prove a depraved mind at the time of the crime.
He said life in prison is still a harsh sentence and that a death penalty decision would only promote the thought pattern that led Wright to kill.
Larson began and ended with quotations from “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first Broadway play written by a black woman, as he asked jurors to keep in mind Wright’s troubled background.
(( Source:Â Argus Leader ))