Friday, April 20, 2007

Dismemberment Death Phase Likely To Take Only Tuesday

By: Carson Walker

SIOUX FALLS -- Jurors could start deliberating as early as late Tuesday whether Daphne Wright of Sioux Falls becomes the first woman on death row in South Dakota, and likely the first deaf woman sentenced to death nationwide.

Wright was convicted Thursday of kidnapping and murder for the February 2006 slaying and dismemberment of Darlene VanderGiesen, another deaf woman from Sioux Falls.

Prosecutors said Wright was jealous of the friendship that VanderGiesen had with Wright's former lover.

VanderGiesen's remains were found in the Sioux Falls landfill and a Minnesota ditch. Her parents have buried her body at her hometown of Rock Valley, Iowa.

At a hearing Monday, Judge Brad Zell denied her lawyers' request to not allow the death penalty because Wright is black, homosexual and deaf.

Public Defender Jeff Larson argued that in a Florida case ruling, an appeals court concluded the defendant's deafness made capital punishment disproportionate.

Deputy State's Attorney Keith Allenstein countered that the ruling in that case stemmed from other circumstances, and Judge Brad Zell agreed.

Larson also argued that Wright should not face the death penalty because of race, disability or sexual orientation.

Of the 21 defendants charged with first-degree murder while State's Attorney Dave Nelson has been in office, he has sought the death penalty against five people and none involved the death of a minority, he said.

"When a minority victim has been involved, the state's attorney's office has never filed a death penalty notice," Larson said.

Nelson, who has been the Minnehaha County prosecutor since 1989, said his office has prosecuted several defendants for murder who were black or homosexual. And Wright used a chain saw to dismember VanderGiesen, which shows depravity of mind under the law not seen in other cases, he said.

"I will just leave it to the court to conclude ... that the state's attorney's office or that I personally have been racially motivated in making charging decisions or in making decisions about the death penalty," Nelson said.

Zell said he didn't see a pattern or indication that "there's any motivation by the state to treat this defendant, based on race, sexual orientation or gender any differently than any other person," he said.

Zell also denied a third request by the defense to prevent the death penalty because depravity of mind requires the person to act immediately. The judge said the issue will be handled in jury instructions on the law.

Nelson said he will put in about an hour of additional prosecution testimony. Larson said he has three main witnesses, including Wright's mother, and should be able to present all of his testimony Tuesday.

The law requires prosecutors to prove beyond reasonable doubt one of 10 aggravating circumstances before jurors can impose the death penalty.

In the Wright case, the element that applies is: "The offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim."

If jurors don't think an "aggravator" was found, they can't impose the death penalty and must sentence Wright to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Even if they do decide that prosecutors proved the aggravating circumstance, they still don't have to sentence someone to death and don't have to give a reason for their vote.

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