Jury Finds Haun Guilty of Dally’s Kidnap-Murder
In a dramatic ending to one of the most sensational trials in Ventura County history, 36-year-old grocery clerk Diana Haun was found guilty of first-degree murder Friday for fatally stabbing her lover’s wife.
After 4 1/2 days of deliberations, the jury reached a verdict just before noon, but the decision was held two hours to allow members of the victim’s and defendant’s families time to assemble in court.
Before a silent and tense crowd, Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones asked the jury foreman if the panel had reached a verdict in the case.
“We have, your honor,” he replied solemnly, and handed the verdict forms to a bailiff. The jury found Haun guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy.
It also decided that Haun killed homemaker Sherri Dally for financial gain, an allegation propelling the case into a penalty phase in which the same 12 jurors will recommend whether Haun should be executed for the crimes.
Seated at the defense table in a pale yellow blazer, Haun looked stunned as the verdict was read to a hushed courtroom. Her wide eyes locked on the court clerk and her face was rigid as one by one each juror confirmed his or her decision.
Seated next to her client, Deputy Public Defender Susan Olson maintained her composure despite the disappointment that showed on her face. Co-counsel Neil Quinn removed his glasses and hung his head, his shoulders slumped forward.
If Haun receives the death penalty, she would be the first woman in nearly 50 years sent to Death Row from Ventura County, and one of only nine women awaiting execution in California.
Haun’s longtime lover, Michael Dally, is also facing a possible death sentence if convicted in a separate trial of killing his wife. Prosecutors say he helped craft the murder plan, but that Haun was the one who inflicted the lethal blows.
Michael Dally will be tried in his wife’s slaying after the penalty phase for Haun concludes.
Outside the courtroom Friday, spectators watching a televised feed of the court proceedings erupted in cheers as the verdict was read.
But not a word was spoken inside the courtroom where relatives of the defendant stared in disbelief and the mother and brother of the slain woman clutched hands and cried tears of joy.
“As a family, we first want to thank the jury for all their hard work and the district attorney’s office and the Police Department,” mother Karlyne Guess said afterward. “They not only worked with their brains, but with their hearts.”
“She was a feisty little kid,” Scott Guess, Sherri Dally’s brother, told reporters. “I don’t know what she would say at this point, maybe ‘Thank you.’ ”
“She was with us,” his mother added. “She is with us every day.”
Seated in the front row of the courtroom, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury rose and hugged his deputy prosecutor, Lela Henke-Dobroth.
Before she left the courtroom, Karlyne Guess embraced friends of her daughter’s who turned out for the verdict.
Overcome by emotion, Sherri Dally’s best friend, Debbie English, pushed aside a throng of television cameras and reporters as she left. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just glad it’s over.”
Half a dozen Ventura police detectives who investigated Sherri Dally’s murder also hugged and wept outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced.
Barred by a sweeping gag order, they said they could not comment on the jury’s decision. Prosecutors and defense attorneys also declined to make statements.
“My only comment is that we are pleased with the verdict,” Henke-Dobroth said in the courthouse hallway. “And beyond that, we have no other comment.”
The lawyers are scheduled to return to court next week to discuss the upcoming penalty phase, which will begin Oct. 20. That phase is expected to last two weeks.
Friday’s verdicts capped a six-week murder trial of unprecedented publicity in Ventura County, a case tinged with allegations of witchcraft, human sacrifice and a love triangle turned deadly.
Prosecutors accused Haun of stabbing Sherri Dally at least eight times with a knife, beating her in the face with an ax and then possibly beheading the mother of two young boys, ages 7 and 9, as a birthday gift to her lover.
Although the verdicts in Haun’s trial prompted a second phase, the panel did not find all of the allegations in the indictment against Haun to be true.
The jury did not find the special circumstance allegation that Haun killed Sherri Dally while lying in wait to be true, despite an impassioned plea by Henke-Dobroth in closing arguments.
The prosecutor suggested that Haun waited in a rental car for Dally to finish shopping on May 6, 1996, and then, posing as a security guard, abducted her and stabbed her to death.
But Quinn told the jury that it was impossible to determine what happened in the car after Dally was abducted, and for that reason, he argued, the lying in wait could have ended before she was killed.
The special circumstances of financial gain and lying in wait were important because it is these allegations combined with a first-degree murder conviction that make Haun eligible for the death penalty.
In addition to the criminal charges, Haun was accused of using two weapons in commission of the crimes: a knife and an ax.
The jury found that Haun stabbed Dally with a knife, but did not believe that Haun wielded an ax, according to the verdicts.
Sherri Dally disappeared from a Target parking lot on the morning of May 6 after witnesses saw her handcuffed and placed into the back seat of a teal-colored car by a blond woman.
Dally’s skeletal remains were found 26 days later, scattered at the bottom of a steep ravine between Ventura and Ojai.
She had been stabbed in the chest, her face was crushed in three places, and a clear cut to the base of her skull indicated that Dally had also been beheaded, the coroner said.
Almost immediately after the 35-year-old homemaker was reported missing, Ventura police targeted Dally’s husband, Michael, and his mistress, Haun, in their investigation.
The pair had been having an affair for two years. According to friends who testified, Sherri Dally knew about the relationship and was trying desperately to win back her husband.
When police arrived at Haun’s home on May 8, two days after Sherri was reported missing, they found Michael Dally walking from Haun’s bedroom bare-chested and wearing a pair of shorts.
Police arrested Haun on Aug. 1 and she was indicted by the Ventura County Grand Jury two weeks later. The charges were later amended after the grand jury indicted Michael Dally as well.
The lovers turned co-defendants were scheduled to stand trial together. But earlier this year, defense attorneys successfully won a bid to sever the trial on the grounds that each defendant would blame the other for the killing.
Haun would be tried first, the judge said.
He also ruled that heavy pretrial publicity surrounding the case made it unlikely that an impartial jury could be found in Ventura County. Rather than move the trial, the judge decided that a Santa Barbara County jury would be impaneled and bused daily to Ventura.
Two months ago 12 jurors and six alternates were seated for Haun’s trial and opening statements began Aug. 4.
Challenging her prudish court appearance, prosecutor Michael Frawley told the jury in his opening remarks that Haun was a woman so driven by a desire to replace Sherri Dally and steal her husband that she carried out a calculated and cold-blooded murder to achieve her goal.
Frawley told the jury that Haun possessed many skills, including acting, which she used to deceive Sherri Dally and then kidnap her.
Haun was also interested in witchcraft, black magic and casting spells, he said. She once told a co-worker that she wanted to perform a human sacrifice as a birthday present to a male friend, Frawley told the jury. Michael Dally’s birthday was 15 days after his wife disappeared.
It was after Sherri Dally gave an ultimatum to her husband to leave Haun or lose his family,prosecutors said, that the lovers began to conspire to commit murder.
In addition to getting rid of his wife, prosecutors said, Michael Dally hoped to avoid a costly divorce and cash in on his wife’s $50,000 life insurance policy that he would share with his new bride--Haun.
They crafted an elaborate kidnapping plan and selected a location in which to dump the body, prosecutors said. And after leaving a messy trail of evidence, they argued, the lovers lied and tried to cover up what they had done.
But defense attorneys argued that there was no evidence directly linking Haun to the killing--no fingerprints, no hair fibers and no witness identifying her as the kidnapper or killer.
Quinn told the jury that Haun had been unknowingly duped into Michael Dally’s plan to kill his wife. He said his client was too squeamish to carry out such a bloody crime, and suggested that Dally found a hit man through ties to drug dealers and prostitutes.
During the trial, prosecutors called more than 100 witnesses to testify about the motives for and the planning and actual execution of Sherri Dally’s kidnap-slaying.
Defense attorneys called about 30 more witnesses to raise doubts about the largely circumstantial case built around their client.
The evidence showed that three days before Dally disappeared, Haun purchased a variety of items, including a hatchet and handcuffs, believed to have been used in the killing.
Haun bought a short blond wig with a personal check two days before Dally disappeared and told a store clerk that she planned to play a trick on someone, the clerk testified.
The same day, Haun bought a tan pantsuit, a camping ax, trash bags, a towel and other items at Kmart, according to bank records. She also rented a teal-colored Nissan Altima on May 5, court records show.
Authorities later recovered the car and found the back seat soaked with Dally’s blood, according to DNA tests. A criminalist testified that it appeared that someone had tried to clean the car and scrub away the blood.
Haun’s phone records showed that on the morning of the kidnapping she made a series of calls to her lover and various businesses in the Ventura County area, including a Camarillo dry cleaners.
At the end of the six-week trial, defense attorney Quinn argued that ample doubt remained about who killed Sherri Dally.
But prosecutor Henke-Dobroth urged the jury to look at the mountain of circumstantial evidence in the case and return a verdict of guilty against Haun--a woman who she said butchered a rival to win a lover.
“Every single bit of evidence that you have--that you need to make that decision--points to only one reasonable interpretation,” Henke-Dobroth said in her closing argument. “And that is that she--Diana Haun--killed Sherri Dally like a lamb to the slaughter.”
Times staff photographer Alan Hagman contributed to this story.
* REACTIONS: Many close to the case openly expressed their pleasure. B1