When the skeletal remains of Sherri Renee Dally were discovered scattered in a rugged canyon north of Ventura a year ago, it ended the search for the 35-year-old homemaker who vanished three weeks earlier from the parking lot of an area discount store.
But it did not resolve the mystery of what happened to her: Who repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned the mother of two, who plotted her grisly killing and who tossed her body into a steep ravine to conceal the crime?
Those questions may begin to be answered later this month when the murder trial of Michael Dally and Diana Haun begins in Ventura County Superior Court.
Prosecutors have accused the pair--who had a two-year love affair before their arrest--of orchestrating and carrying out the slaying of Dally’s wife to avoid a costly divorce and to cash out her life insurance policy.
They are charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, in addition to allegations that the killing occurred while lying in wait and for financial gain. Dally, 37, and Haun, 36, could be sent to death row if convicted.
It is a case that has captivated Ventura County residents like few others in recent history--an unfolding tale of a devoted wife, her adulterous husband and his girlfriend accused in a deadly love triangle.
It has drawn so much attention, in fact, that attorneys recently agreed to let a Santa Barbara County jury hear the case rather than try to find Ventura County jurors unfamiliar with the names Dally and Haun.
Although jury selection and opening statements are several weeks away, attorneys are poised to argue a handful of critical motions beginning today.
When the trial begins, friends and relatives of Sherri Dally will be on hand. They plan to closely watch as the trial unfolds this summer, hoping that it will finally bring a sense of closure to their lives.
“You’re still grieving until after this trial is over with,” said Claris Guess, Sherri Dally’s grandmother. “And we will still grieve for her very much, but I think a healing process will start.”
Guess said she wishes that the district attorney was not seeking the death penalty in the case, and stressed that the family will try to shield Dally’s two boys, Devon, 9, and Max, 7, from the upcoming trial.
“I would rather see life in prison than the death penalty--life in prison would be a worse punishment,” she said.
Attorneys expect jury selection to begin later this month. Once picked, the jury will probably be bused from Santa Barbara to the Ventura County Courthouse for what is expected to be a lengthy trial.
If the jury convicts the pair of murder and at least one of the allegations, the case will enter a penalty phase in which jurors must decide whether Dally and Haun should be put to death.
But before the prosecution calls its first witness, a series of key issues must be resolved.
Today, defense attorneys will urge Ventura County Judge Frederick A. Jones to split the case into separate proceedings so that Dally and Haun can be prosecuted separately.
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the likelihood of prejudice to either or both defendants is great,” Deputy Public Defender Neil B. Quinn wrote in a recent motion.
Quinn, who is representing Haun, said his client could essentially be prosecuted by the district attorney and Dally’s lawyers if they decide to use a hostile defense strategy and blame her for the slaying.
But prosecutors say it would be too cumbersome to split the case, particularly given the vast number of witnesses.
About 160 people are expected to take the stand for the prosecution, including experts in blood, fiber and handwriting analysis as well as relatives, friends and co-workers of the two defendants.
“Where two people have been charged with conspiracy together to commit a murder, it makes sense for the facts regarding the argument to be heard in a single trial,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth wrote in a June 5 brief.
Jones will be asked to resolve another issue today: whether prosecutors should be allowed to read 71 letters Dally sent Haun since her arrest in August.
Haun’s attorneys gave the letters, sealed in a thick envelope, to the judge last month after prosecutors searched her jail cell to seize one particular document.
They want the letters kept from the prosecution, arguing that the documents are Haun’s personal property and have nothing to do with the case.
“These are the private documents of Ms. Haun,” Deputy Public Defender Susan Olson argued last week.
But Henke-Dobroth told Jones that she was unsure whether letters from one co-defendant to the other are protected by privacy rights. She said they may have to be turned over because of an information-sharing agreement the attorneys established in the fall.
Neither Dally nor Haun showed any outward emotion as attorneys wrestled over their private correspondence in court last week.
The fact that Dally has written to his girlfriend about twice a week in the last eight months is the only indication of their continuing relationship.
On the eve of trial, the pair appear relaxed during court appearances. Dally laughs and chats openly with his attorneys. He sometimes rocks back in his chair or reads court papers.
On most days, Haun sits quietly between her two court-appointed lawyers, smiling broadly when they walk into the courtroom.
But unlike their first court appearances a few months ago, Haun and Dally rarely exchange smiles, although they are seated only a few feet away.
Since police first targeted her as a suspect a year ago, Haun, a Port Hueneme resident, has maintained not only her innocence but that of her boyfriend. Dally, a lifelong Ventura resident, has done the same.
But as the case intensifies, so do questions about whether the lovers may ultimately point fingers at each other to save themselves from a death sentence.
It is a common scenario in cases involving two or more defendants, criminal defense attorneys say, and one fraught with danger.
“Any time you have two defendants together where the natural defense is to shift the blame to the other, it is very dangerous,” criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun said.
The jury often assumes, Braun said, that because of the configuration in the courtroom, defendants are getting along. But that is often not the case.
“I think there are too many people tried together,” he said. “It inhibits the lawyers and the defendants from defending themselves.”
Defense attorneys have said little about what their defense strategies may be. And with a blanket gag order imposed last week, their tactics will likely remain a secret until opening statements.
Dally and Haun told reporters before their arrest last year that they had no involvement in Sherri Dally’s disappearance or killing.
“I am innocent,” Haun told The Times in a June 1996 interview, suggesting that she had been “set up” by Sherri’s real killer. “I had nothing to do with it.”
In August, Dally told the grand jury that he loved his wife, but he admitted that she was upset by his affair with Haun. According to Grand Jury transcripts, Dally thought that Sherri may have run away to play a trick on him.
But prosecutors say they have strong circumstantial evidence linking Dally and Haun to Sherri Dally’s abduction and slaying.
They say Haun kidnapped her May 6, 1996, beat her with a hatchet, stabbed her with a knife, then dumped her body at a prearranged location 10 1/2 miles north of Ventura. Dally, they say, helped plot his wife’s death.
One of the key questions as they near trial, however, is whether prosecutors can convince a jury of those allegations--particularly a jury from outside Ventura County.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to import a jury from southern Santa Barbara County after the defense argued that pretrial publicity had tainted the local jury pool.
But attorneys who have tried cases in both counties warn that while they may not be far apart geographically, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are quite different in terms of education and socioeconomic status.
“There is a decidedly different composition,” said attorney George Eskin, who has handled criminal cases in both counties.
“Santa Barbara juries have a lot more formal education and are a lot more sophisticated,” Eskin said. “Santa Barbara jurors are going to respond more to a reasoned intellectual presentation rather than an emotional presentation.
“I have had gardeners on juries who have had doctorate degrees in something other than horticulture,” he added. “I certainly do know that it is something an attorney should contemplate.”
There will be much for attorneys to contemplate as the trial gets underway this summer. Debates about jury questionnaires and the admissibility of evidence are expected to follow today’s hearing.
Logistics, such as how the jury will be transported from Santa Barbara to Ventura, must be ironed out as well.
“Some of us will be there,” Sherri Dally’s grandmother said of the upcoming jury selection. “I know her mom plans on being there all the time if she can.”
For the family, Guess said, it will be the beginning of a long road that they hope will end with the answers to many of those unresolved questions.
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Key Dates in Dally/Haun Murder Case
May 6, 1996--Sherri Dally disappears from the Target parking lot in Ventura. Witnesses later testify to the grand jury that they saw a woman matching her description get into the back of a blue-green car.
May 18--Diana Haun is arrested in connection with the disappearance but later released. No charges are filed.
June 1--A search party finds Dally’s remains in a ravine off La Canada Road north of Ventura.
June 5--Coroner says Dally was beaten and stabbed to death.
Aug. 1--Diana Haun is arrested on suspicion of killing Dally.
Aug. 16--Ventura County Grand Jury indicts Haun on charges of murder and kidnapping.
Nov. 15--Michael Dally is arrested in connection with his wife’s slaying and indicted on charges of murder, conspiracy, kidnapping and special allegations making him eligible for the death penalty. Haun is re-indicted on the same charges.
Dec. 4--Haun and Dally enter pleas of not guilty.
Dec. 20--District attorney announces the death penalty will be sought.
April 23, 1997--Grand jury re-indicts the pair after one of the two allegations is dismissed by the judge.
May 1--Hearing on change of venue begins as defense attorneys argue that Dally and Haun cannot get a fair trial in Ventura County because of pretrial publicity.
May 30--Judge rules a jury from Santa Barbara County should be imported to Ventura County Superior Court to hear the case.
June 16--Trial scheduled to begin, with jury selection beginning in Santa Barbara later this month.