Assuring Fair Trial Not Easy for Court


Daphne Wright (center)

Wright jury selection might take two weeks
By Josh Verges

Court officials are taking extraordinary steps to ensure a fair trial for Daphne Wright, the accused killer who on Monday got her first look at some of her peers who could be asked to order her death.

Wright, 43, was indicted in February 2006 on kidnapping and first-degree murder counts in the disappearance of 42-year-old Darlene Vander-Giesen of Rock Valley, Iowa.

Vander-Giesen’s body was dismembered, and searchers spent days at a landfill west of Sioux Falls searching for her body parts. Some human remains also were found in a ditch in Minnesota.

Hundreds of potential jurors have been summoned to the courthouse because of extensive publicity and other factors.

Minnehaha County sends about 550 summons to prospective jurors every month, a number that has not changed even for recent murder trials, jury manager Deb Beuckens said.

But for Wright’s trial, the judge ordered an additional 800 summons from Minnehaha County driver’s license and voter registration databases.

Some 350 of those returned the initial questionnaires, and after dozens were dismissed with good excuses, the rest were set to appear in court Monday and today.

Judge Brad Zell said jury selection could take two weeks or more. The trial itself is expected to take about six weeks.

Public defender Jeff Larson said in court Monday that he expects many potential jurors will be dismissed because of pretrial publicity and because it’s a death penalty case. The more who are dismissed, the longer selection will take.

Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson is seeking the death penalty on grounds that the killing was vile, horrible or inhuman.

Zell last month rejected a motion to preclude the death penalty. Defense lawyers had argued it would be cruel and unusual to kill Wright because she is deaf and therefore less capable of making mitigating statements to jurors.

The judge will wait to rule on defense motions that punishment by death would be discriminatory because Wright is black and a lesbian.

Wright’s minority status as deaf, black and homosexual have been considerations in pretrial motions and have brought national attention to the case.

Ricky D. Taylor, a deaf Washington, D.C., blogger who runs, said by e-mail that he’s received several e-mails about Wright’s case. He said it’s of particular interest on the East Coast, where Wright used to live.

Taylor said he’s interested in the makeup of the jurors and would like to see a deaf person among them.

“As much as the crimes are heinous to us all, I am concerned about the jury selection. For one, Daphne is (a) woman, lesbian, deaf and African-American. Will she be fairly judged by her peers in the state of South Dakota? In my opinion, I doubt that,” he wrote.

Groups of potential jurors on Monday watched an orientation video, got brief instruction from the judge about publicity and discussing the case and filled out an eight-page questionnaire. They will return as soon as Wednesday to take an oath and answer questions from the lawyers.

Zell said he’d like to find as many as 60 qualified jurors before letting the lawyers dismiss individuals without giving a reason.

Wright’s deafness has necessitated as many as five American Sign Language interpreters to be in court at a time.

The weeks leading up to Monday’s start of jury selection have featured lengthy pretrial testimony and argument about what else should happen to guarantee Wright a fair trial.

Zell already had granted a defense motion that in-court translation be videotaped and reaffirmed it Monday after hearing new arguments. The defense wants the recording to make sure what is being signed to Wright is the same as what witnesses are saying.

Nelson argued in court Monday that other steps the court has already taken will ensure a fair trial and that the video would draw out the appeals process if Wright is convicted.

“I don’t think the state or county should have to bear this really remarkable expense,” he said, assigning an $80,000 price tag to the argument.

Assistant public defender Traci Smith insisted it’s crucial that the court record is accurate.

She noted that the chosen company, Midwest Litigation Services, would charge the county $60 per hour, which for a 30-day trial at eight hours per day is less than $15,000.

(( Source: Argus Leader / Photo by Elisha Page ))