VENTURA — A jury decided Monday to spare convicted killer Diana Haun from execution for fatally stabbing her lover's wife.
Convinced that she was a pawn in a lover's scheme, the jury spent three hours deliberating before recommending that Haun, 36, be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"My feeling was Diana Haun was not among what I would consider the worst of the worst criminals," said juror John Mostachetti, 43, a Santa Barbara city planner. "For me personally, I have to ask myself what the death penalty would have accomplished. And it certainly was not going to bring Sherri Dally back."
Dally, a 35-year-old mother of two young boys, was killed in May 1996. Her husband, Michael, faces trial next month for his alleged role in her kidnapping and murder.
The case drew so much publicity in Ventura County that jurors were bused in from Santa Barbara County to decide the case.
As the jury's final verdict was read, Haun bit down nervously on her lower lip and turned to her two public defenders in tears.
One of Haun's lawyers held her hand and wiped away tears as a collective gasp broke the silence of more than 50 spectators awaiting word whether Haun, a petite 36-year-old grocery clerk from Port Hueneme, would become the ninth woman condemned to death in California.
The sentence came almost a month after the same jury found Haun guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy for killing Sherri Dally.
The jury also found that Haun committed the killing for financial gain, a finding that propelled the case into a penalty phase.
Haun's prison sentence is expected to be formally imposed by Superior Court Judge Frederick A. Jones on Nov. 24, the day that Michael Dally's trial is set to begin.
Bound by a gag order, prosecutors and defense attorneys declined to comment on the sentence Monday.
But outside the courtroom, Sherri Dally's 20-year-old niece, Hannah Murray, said she was satisfied with the jury's decision, having never believed the panel would impose a death sentence.
"They wouldn't want someone from Ventura County to get the death penalty," Murray said. "This is supposed to be paradise."
Murray, who testified in both the guilt and penalty phases of Haun's trial, said she had no strong feelings about her aunt's killer.
"I'm not going to hate her," Murray said. "It takes too much energy to hate her. I'm going to invest it in my family."
Murray said the family is now turning its attention to Michael Dally's upcoming trial. "This was the easy one," she said.
Sherri Dally disappeared from a Target parking lot on the morning of May 6, 1996.
Witnesses saw her handcuffed and placed into the back seat of a teal-colored car.
Dally's skeletal remains were found 26 days later, strewn about the bottom of a steep ravine between Ventura and Ojai. She had been stabbed in the chest at least eight times, her face was crushed in three places, and a cut to the base of her skull indicated that she had been beheaded.
Almost immediately after Sherri Dally was reported missing, Ventura police focused their investigation on her husband, Michael, and his mistress, Haun.
The lovers-turned-co-defendants were scheduled to stand trial together, but defense attorneys won a bid to sever the trials on the grounds that Haun and Dally would blame each other for the killing.
During Haun's six-week trial, which began in August, prosecutors told the jury that she was so driven by a desire to replace Sherri Dally that she carried out a calculated and coldblooded murder.
Michael Dally wanted to avoid a financially ruinous divorce and conspired with his lover to eliminate his wife, they argued, telling the jury that it was Haun who prepared for and carried out the killing.
Defense attorneys argued that Haun had been duped into taking part in Michael Dally's murder scheme.
Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn said Haun was too squeamish to carry out such a bloody crime and suggested that Michael Dally found a hit man through his ties to drug dealers and prostitutes.
In the penalty phase, which began Oct. 20, prosecutors urged the jury to return a death sentence, given the premeditation behind the slaying. "A life sentence is too lenient," prosecutor Michael Frawley said.