Should the Deaf Get Death?


It was a grisly crime, with details shocking enough to grab headlines of their own.

But the case of Daphne Wright, a deaf woman charged with murder in a lesbian love triangle, is raising a controversial question that goes beyond the case itself: Should deaf defendants ever face the death penalty?

A motion filed by Wright's attorneys argues that imposing the death penalty on Wright violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." Wright's attorneys say that because she has been deaf since early childhood she is at an unfair disadvantage in trying to persuade a jury to spare her life.

Presiding Judge Bradley Zeff denied that motion in February, rejecting the defense argument that Wright's lifelong deafness makes it unconstitutional for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. As of now, with jury selection under way and a trial imminent, Daphne Wright faces execution if convicted for her alleged crimes.

The facts of the case are startlingly gruesome. Darlene VanderGeisen, a deaf woman from Sioux Falls, S.D., disappeared on Feb. 1, 2006. She was later found dead and dismembered, her body parts found scattered between a landfill in Sioux Falls and a ditch near Beaver Creek, Minn.

Ten days after the killing Wright was arrested on murder charges. According to court documents, a search of Wright's basement yielded bone fragments and tissue that matched VanderGeisen's DNA. Autopsy reports determined the cause of death was either suffocation or a blow to the head. It is believed a chainsaw was used to dismember VanderGeisen after she had been killed.

Prosecutors say Wright got caught up in a whirlwind of lesbian drama which drove her to commit murder. The motive was jealousy. Wright says VanderGeisen, who was heterosexual, was trying to break up her lesbian relationship with a woman identified as Sallie Collins, a close friend of the victim. The two reportedly had a heated argument over the relationship shortly before the murder took place.

Wright maintains her innocence and has pleaded not guilty. If convicted on the charges of abduction, murder and dismembering, she faces death by lethal injection and could become the first woman to be executed in South Dakota.

In court this week, prosecuting attorney Dave Nelson told prospective jurors a simplified version of why he's seeking the death penalty for Wright.

Nelson told the court, "We don't have different rules for different people. We don't have different rules for different groups," according to The Associated Press.

A number of disability rights activists agree, stating that equal rights for the deaf means equal treatment everywhere -- including in the courtroom. If Wright is charged with crimes that warrant the death penalty, then that's what prosecutors should pursue.

"I think it's very dangerous to argue that deaf people as a general matter shouldn't be eligible for the death penalty," Andrew Imparato told ABC News. Imparato is the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

"Making that argument [involves] saying that they are not aware of the consequences of their actions. It can reinforce stereotypes … lead to discrimination against deaf people."

Her Defense

Most scholars and clinical professionals agree that the deaf are at a disadvantage in the courtroom. But they disagree on whether that disadvantage can be overcome.

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