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Dally Jury Deadlocks on Death Sentence

Courts: Mistrial declared in Ventura murder case. Prosecutors to decide whether to try again with new panel.


VENTURA — The jury weighing the fate of convicted killer Michael Dally declared itself hopelessly deadlocked Friday, prompting a Superior Court judge to declare a mistrial in the penalty phase of the high-profile case.

After three days of deliberations, jurors remained divided 7 to 5 on whether Dally should be executed for plotting with his former lover to murder his wife, Sherri.

The majority wanted the death penalty for the 37-year-old former grocery store employee, but the foreman indicated that--even with further discussion--a unanimous verdict could not be reached.

As Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. ordered a mistrial, Dally stared straight ahead with his chin held high and displayed little emotion.

But he smiled broadly, hugged and patted the backs of his two lawyers after the jury left the courtroom, nodding at his father, Lawrence, who was seated a few feet away.

"My son has another chance," Lawrence Dally told a crush of reporters outside the courtroom moments later. "I'm glad he'll get another crack at it."

But the jury's impasse frustrated friends of victim Sherri Dally, who had hoped the final verdict would bring closure to her 1996 slaying.

"Does it ever end?" asked Debbie English, Sherri's best friend and a prosecution witness.

Prosecutors said they must now decide whether to pursue a second penalty trial, which would require picking a new jury.

Without a new jury, the judge would automatically sentence Dally to life in prison without the possibility of parole, prosecutors said.

"We are entitled to retry it if we so chose," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth, declining to comment on what strategy the prosecution may take. A hearing is set for May 11 at which time prosecutors intend to announce their decision.

But based upon the jury's split, local attorneys say prosecutors could face an uphill battle in a second penalty trial and will have to look hard at whether they have any better evidence to bolster their case.

"Certainly the biggest decision that has to be made is whether the prosecution wants to seek a new trial," said Oxnard attorney David Shain.

"It strikes me that if the jury that heard the case can't reach unanimity, one would wonder whether a newly impaneled jury that didn't hear the underlying evidence in the case would find differently," Shain added.

Dally's lawyers refused to comment on the jury's deadlock, and declined to meet privately with members of the jury afterward.

"I'm tired," said attorney James M. Farley. "I'd really rather not."

Earlier this week, Farley urged the jury to spare his client from execution by arguing that life in prison without parole is adequate punishment. Farley also told the jury that executing his client would only harm Dally's two children, Devon, 10, and Max, 8.

But prosecutors argued that Dally deserved the death penalty. He was the one who wanted his wife killed in a painful manner, they argued, and he was the one who stood to gain financially once she was dead.

"This murder was accomplished in the most savage, brutal way you can imagine," Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley argued in his closing summation, adding that it "would not have occurred but for Michael Dally."

Sherri Dally disappeared from a Target store parking lot on the morning of May 6, 1996, after shoppers saw her get into the back seat of a teal-colored car driven by a blond woman.

Witnesses said they thought Dally, a 35-year-old day-care provider, was being arrested because she allowed herself to be handcuffed before climbing into the car.

Court testimony later revealed that Michael Dally's mistress, Diana Haun, was the woman who approached Sherri Dally in a disguise.

A month later, a search party found Dally's skeletal remains scattered in the bottom of a steep ravine between Ventura and Ojai.

The medical examiner determined that she had been bludgeoned, possibly with the blunt end of an ax, and stabbed repeatedly in the chest. A clear cut to the base of her skull also suggested that she had been beheaded.

After a six-week trial last year, Haun was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy for her role in the slaying and sentenced to life in prison.

Six months later, Dally was convicted of the same charges despite a lack of hard evidence linking him to the crime. Defense attorneys were stunned by the jury's findings and concluded that the panel was biased.

Throughout the seven-week trial, jurors heard evidence depicting Dally as a dead-end drug user who felt trapped in his marriage, preyed on weak women and ultimately found one willing to kill his wife for him.

Despite such testimony, Dally took the stand at the penalty phase of his trial and told jurors that he loved his wife and played no role in her slaying.

Dally's family said Friday that his decision to testify may have helped save him from death row.

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