In clinical tones that held a jury in rapt attention, Ventura County’s coroner testified Thursday that homemaker Sherri Dally was probably beheaded after being repeatedly stabbed and bludgeoned, possibly with a small camping ax.
The severed neck bone and the tiny nick on the underside of Dally’s skull suggest the killer used a sharp, flat object to cut her head off, Medical Examiner Ronald O’Halloran testified.
His statements captivated a courtroom filled to capacity and offered some of the most gruesome and shocking testimony so far in the sensational murder trial of Diana Haun.
“One stroke with a hatchet could produce all of those injuries,” he testified on direct examination, holding a plastic skull marked with the location of the wounds. “They are consistent with a beheading.”
But on cross-examination, O’Halloran said it was impossible to determine with any degree of certainty when the head was cut or with what instrument. He said it was possible that a beheading occurred even hours after death.
O’Halloran testified for nearly four hours about the savage slaying now linked to Haun, who is accused of kidnapping and killing the wife of her longtime lover, Michael Dally.
The 36-year-old defendant sat motionless as the coroner described in often gruesome detail the manner in which Sherri Dally was killed and the condition of her remains.
Dally, a 35-year-old mother of two who operated her own in-home day-care center, was abducted from the parking lot of a Ventura Target store May 6, 1996. Her skeletal remains were found by a volunteer search party 26 days later at the bottom of a ravine near Ojai.
O’Halloran told jurors that he went to that site on the evening of June 1, 1996, to collect and mark the location of Dally’s bones, which animals had scattered in a 30-by-30-foot area along a nearby stream bed.
During an autopsy, the remains--about 80% of which were recovered--were assembled and evidence of a homicide became apparent, O’Halloran said.
Her chest had been stabbed, her skull fractured and her neck area showed signs of being struck by both blunt and sharp objects, he said.
The body was in such a decomposed state, however, that O’Halloran said it was impossible to determine conclusively the sequence of injuries or the time of death.
Dally suffered three sets of injuries, any number of which could have proved fatal, the medical examiner testified.
First, she was hit in the head by either a strong fist or a heavy object, such as a rock or the blunt end of an ax, which fractured her cheekbone in three places, O’Halloran testified.
Her jaw was cut by a sharp object that left a tiny fragment of metal embedded in the bone. It appeared to have been from a serrated knife, he said. Her chin was also fractured into two pieces.
“I think we could rule out a fist blow,” he said of the chin injury. “It could be from an ax.”
In addition to the head injuries, Dally was stabbed multiple times in the chest area, possibly with a double-sided knife or dagger, O’Halloran said.
Her ribs and clavicle showed notches from a knife. And her shirt, he said, which was also found in the ravine, showed evidence of six small tears consistent with stabbing.
Most of the testimony Thursday focused on the last injury noted by the coroner: the severed bone at the base of Dally’s skull.
The cut was clean and straight, O’Halloran testified, suggesting that a sharp, flat object was used.
In addition, a small cut was noted on the underside of Dally’s skull, roughly in the area of the roof of her mouth. That injury could have been caused by the edge of a sharp object, like a knife or ax, he said.
But on cross-examination, O’Halloran told the jury that it would have been difficult for Dally’s attacker to cut the bone and the outer skin at the same time--suggesting that two implements might have been used to remove her head.
“If it was an ax that was used in an attempt to sever this head,” he said, “it would have to be a very hard swing.”
Answering a question from Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn, O’Halloran also testified that Dally’s head might have been cut off hours after she was killed--possibly by a person intending to inflict further injury to the corpse.
“I can’t rule it out,” he said.
Dally’s head was found 15 feet uphill from the rest of the body on a downhill slope--a location that Quinn suggested might show the body was tampered with by a person or animals.
After O’Halloran concluded his testimony, crime lab criminalist Margaret Schaeffer testified about her examination of a blue-green Nissan Altima that Haun rented a day before Dally’s disappearance.
Eyewitnesses to Dally’s abduction have previously testified to seeing Dally allow herself to be handcuffed by a blond-haired woman before stepping into the back seat of a blue Altima on May 6, 1996.
In her examination of the car, Schaeffer said she found human blood soaked into the rear passenger seat as well as the floorboard, which appeared to have been rubbed.
“My first thought was that an attempt was made to clean the area,” she said. She also found evidence of blood splattered on the car’s interior roof, door handle, seat belt, center console and trunk.
Samples of the blood were sent to a lab in Maryland for DNA analysis. The results of that test will be testified to next Tuesday, when Schaeffer returns to the witness stand.
* JURY TOUR
Santa Barbara jurors will get a bus tour of the Ventura locations highlighted by the Diana Haun trial. B5