Should the Deaf Get Death?

March 9, 2007 — -- 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.

The defense motion to bar the death penalty in Wright's case cited a study by Barbara Brauer, executive director of Gallaudet University, the first school for the advanced education of the deaf. Brauer measured how long it takes to interpret into sign language what a person is saying in English; she found that a series of questions that could be administered in 42 minutes in spoken English would take two hours to administer in American sign language.

In their motion to strike the death penalty defense attorneys for Wright cited the lack of consecutive interpretation. In other words, the sign language interpreter assigned to her case would be translating simultaneously during the court proceedings, rather than listening to a portion of testimony and translating during a pause in the process.

This, attorneys argue, leaves little time to compensate for the fact that it takes longer to say something in sign language than in spoken English -- particularly when the complex legal concepts are part of the conversation.

Her attorneys also state in their motion that American Sign Language "lacks technical and legal terms" that would be crucial to Daphne Wright as tries to understand the court proceedings around her.

Judge Bradley Zell has allowed court proceedings to be videotaped so that Daphne Wright and her lawyers can have a record of the sign language communications used in the courtroom. Her lawyers maintain that they are not allowed to use a Certified Deaf Interpreter for the trial.

Professor Jeff Braden, an expert in deafness and development, says that Wright should not face the death penalty, even if an ideal interpreter were available. "She is at more of a disadvantage than, say, if you or I were arrested and taken to court in Pakistan, where we'd be at the mercy of a court interpreter. Having an interpreter still doesn't change the fact that deaf people don't have a native language."

The problem, Braden says, is that it is not uncommon for a woman like Wright -- deaf since early childhood and born to hearing parents -- to get a late start in her exposure to language. In those critical early years, Braden says, critical communication skills are lost.

"There are a number of barriers that deaf people face that would put them at a severe disadvantage in a legal proceeding. … She'd be at a significant disadvantage, even with an interpreter." Braden told ABC News.

"Battery or manslaughter may be signed the same way. An individual is not getting info they need because American Sign Language doesn't [those symbols]," Braden added. He also notes that tone of voice and other nuances that convey meaning in the courtroom would get lost in interpretation.

Rick Norris of Communication Service for the Deaf told ABC News he believes otherwise. He says the only time interpretation could present a problem is at times of long duration, when it might become taxing on the interpreter.

Other researchers agree, stating that as long as qualified interpreters are provided, deaf defendants should have no inherent problem understanding the complexity of the legal process or the moral weight of their alleged crimes.

The problem seen by activists like Imparato is lack of access to qualified interpreters. In some cases, courts are not willing or able to find and pay for qualified interpreters. According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, an agency that logs all nationally legally certified translators, says there are currently only 167 legally certified translators across the United States.

"There is a serious problem around the country with deaf people not having access to qualified sign language interpreters," Imparato told ABC News. "Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws, deaf people are entitled to effective communication."

What's Next for Wright?

Jury selection began on March 5 and could last up to six weeks. Because the death penalty is a possible outcome, the pool of possible jurors is larger than in most cases.

The case is being closely watched by activists from the deaf community, the disabled community and the gay rights community -- all of them waiting to see how Wright is treated in court, whether she'll be convicted and whether execution is the sentence she'll ultimately face.