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Deaf Org. Responds To Wright Death Penalty Issue

January 18, 2007, 3:55 PM by Perry Groten

Efforts to get the death penalty thrown out in the murder trial of Daphne Wright have led to a backlash within the KELOLAND deaf community. 

Wright is scheduled to go on trial in March for murder and kidnapping in connection with the death of Darlene VanderGiesen. Wright's lawyers say the death penalty in this case would be "excessive" and unconstitutional because of her deafness. But others who cannot hear say those legal claims only add to the stigma of living in a silent world.

Court papers filed by Daphne Wright's lawyers say that people who've been deaf since early childhood have severely limited vocabularies and a hard time understanding English. The lawyers call this an "information gap" that "produces a subtle, though highly significant cognitive deficit." As a result, Wright's lawyers argue it would be impossible for her to understand the legal process of her trial and therefore, she would be unable to defend herself in a death penalty hearing. But Communication Service for the Deaf say those with longterm deafness are not hindered in their understanding of complex matters, including legal proceedings. Rick Norris of Communication Service for the Deaf said, "I do know that there are a lot of deaf people that feel as if a deaf person should be treated just as a hearing person." 

Rick Norris says claims by Wright's lawyers that deaf people can often have "a lack of basic knowledge of legal terms" only contribute to an unfair and inaccurate stereotype. "You see some language delays in development in early years for some people, but to say that in general deaf people have information gaps, they're not able to carry on conversations, I think may be a stretch." 

Defense lawyers also say that sign language would not help Wright in court. Their motion states "research has shown that forcing an interpreter to attempt to keep pace with the speaker dramatically increases the rate of interpretation errors."

But Norris says South Dakota has a strong pool of certified professional interpreters who can sign both quickly and accurately inside the courtroom. 

Wright's lawyers have found no cases since 1990 of an execution of a person who's been deaf since early childhood.

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