An appellate court rejected Diana Haun’s appeal of her first-degree murder conviction Tuesday after concluding that evidence of her dabbling in witchcraft did not inflame the jury during her 1997 trial.
Instead, the state 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura found that there was ample proof that Haun, 39, a former Port Hueneme grocery clerk, abducted and killed her lover’s wife so he could avoid a costly divorce.
The decision comes three years and four days after Haun was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Sherri Dally, 35, in one of Ventura County’s most sensational court cases.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth said she had been confident the appellate court would affirm the conviction.
“The evidence of guilt was overwhelming,” she said, “and I think we tried a very clean case.”
Defense attorneys had argued that Haun was denied a fair trial. After Tuesday’s ruling, they vowed to take the case before the California Supreme Court.
“These are the types of things that are expected at this level of appeals,” said attorney Barry O. Bernstein of Sherman Oaks. “We expect to gain more consideration further up in the appellate process.”
In their appeal, Bernstein and co-counsel Eric Chase argued that prosecutors presented inflammatory evidence of witchcraft and human sacrifice to bolster their theory that Haun conspired with her lover, Michael Dally, to do away with his wife.
They called Haun’s highly publicized trial a “witch hunt” and said the judge made numerous errors that prejudiced the jury.
But the appellate court disagreed.
In a 23-page written ruling written by Justice Paul Coffee, the court rejected each of the defense arguments and ruled that the disputed evidence was properly admitted during Haun’s 11-week trial.
Specifically, the court found the evidence of witchcraft was not “irrelevant and inflammatory” as the defense suggested, but tended to show Haun’s intent to kill.
The justices further pointed out that Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones was correct when he limited how much witchcraft testimony would be presented.
“The trial court minimized the prejudice to Haun by excluding the more inflammatory details,” the justices wrote. “For example, the court did not permit the prosecution to introduce testimony that Haun had admitted drinking human blood or that she and Dally used the numbers 666 when paging each other.”
The appellate court also rejected defense arguments that Jones should have allowed the jury to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder.
The court also shot down a claim that a financial-gain allegation, which essentially said Haun killed Sherri Dally so her lover could avoid a costly divorce, must be stricken because there was no legal precedent for it.
Dally was abducted from a retail store parking lot on May 6, 1996, and stabbed with a knife and beaten with an ax before her body was dumped in a ravine north of Ventura. Her remains were found by a search party a month later.
Haun and Michael Dally, now 40, were indicted on murder charges, and prosecutors sought the death penalty during separate trials.
Haun was convicted of first-degree murder, conspiracy and kidnapping, as well as an allegation that she killed for financial gain. But the jury rejected the death penalty for Haun.
Dally’s jury convicted him of the same charges but deadlocked on the death penalty. Both were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole and are appealing their convictions.
Dally’s case will be argued before the same appellate court Dec. 14.
Henke-Dobroth said she hopes the ruling in Haun’s case will bring some closure for Sherri Dally’s family.
“I was very much relieved to have some finality at least to the Haun trial,” she said. “It has been over four years since Sherri Dally was murdered. Her family and friends have anxiously been awaiting the outcome of both of these appeals.”