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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Lawyers Seek to Overturn Haun Murder Conviction

Appeal: They say judge allowed prejudicial evidence and misled jury, but prosecutors disagree.

October 10, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers for Diana Haun will ask an appellate court this week to overturn her 1997 murder conviction by arguing that prosecutors turned her trial into a "witch hunt."

They contend that Haun, 39, was not given a fair trial on charges that she kidnapped, stabbed and bludgeoned 35-year-old Ventura homemaker Sherri Dally, her lover's wife.

Specifically, they say the judge misled the jury about the meaning of murder for financial gain and allowed prosecutors to present highly prejudicial evidence about Haun's dabbling in witchcraft and her affairs with married men.

"The prosecutor turned this trial into a witch hunt instead of a search for the truth," Sherman Oaks lawyer Carla Johnson argued in her opening brief. "The case should be reversed."

But state prosecutors handling the appeal--which will be argued Wednesday before justices of the 2nd District Court of Appeal--say the evidence presented against Haun was overwhelming.

They argue that rulings by now-deceased Superior Court Judge Frederick Jones during the 11-week trial were correct and should not be reversed.

The appeal comes three years after Haun's conviction in one of Ventura County's most sensational murder cases. Haun, a former Vons deli clerk and Port Hueneme resident, and her lover, Michael Dally, now 40, were convicted of plotting an elaborate murder scheme to kill his wife so he could avoid a costly divorce.

Haun was found guilty of abducting Sherri Dally from a retail store parking lot on May 6, 1996, then stabbing her with a knife and beating her with an ax before dumping her body into a ravine along Canada Larga Road between Ventura and Ojai. Sherri Dally's skeletal remains were found a month later by a search party, and the coroner concluded that she may have been beheaded.

A grand jury indicted both Haun and Michael Dally on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against each of them in separate trials and alleged the killing was done for financial gain.

Haun was found guilty of those charges on Sept. 26, 1997, but a month later the jury rejected the death penalty. Dally was convicted of the same charges several months later, and the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

Both defendants were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole and are appealing their convictions. Michael Dally's appeal is expected to be argued in November.

Haun's lawyers filed her appeal last fall and list several grounds on which they say the case should be reversed. Chiefly, they argue that the financial-gain special circumstance--which makes Haun ineligible for parole--should be reversed because the judge gave an incorrect jury instruction.

Before deliberations, Jones told jurors they did not have to find that the defendant hoped to personally profit from the murder to find it was committed for financial gain. Jones said the benefit could have been intended for another person.

Haun's appellate lawyers say Jones was wrong.

"No court has construed the meaning of the term 'for financial gain' in a case where the facts indicated that a defendant killed for love with an incidental result of causing a financial gain for another," Johnson argues.

She also contends that Jones erred by allowing prejudicial testimony about witchcraft, Haun's prior relationship with a married man and a hearsay statement from her mother to be admitted as evidence.

In a reply brief, Deputy Atty. Gen. Lawrence Daniels argues that Jones' rulings were correct and says the law does not require that a defendant personally benefit financially for the allegation to be true.

He points out that in murder-for-hire cases, state courts have found the person who hires a killer is equally liable under the financial-gain statute.

"The present situation is factually the reverse but conceptually the same as the murder-for-hire situations," Daniels wrote.

Meanwhile, Haun's lawyers have also filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that she was denied her constitutional rights to hire a private attorney and has been unlawfully held in state prison as a result.

In the writ, filed in late August, appellate lawyers accuse the Ventura County public defender's office of telling Haun she could not afford a private attorney and then garnishing $240,000 from her annuity to repay costs of her defense.

Appellate co-counsel Eric Chase says the annuity was available at the start and argues that the public defender's advice deprived Haun of her rights to choose her own lawyer.

The issue will not be argued Wednesday, but the justices are expected to issue a decision on the writ when they rule on the appeal in the coming weeks.

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