Sarah Elizabeth Dutra, convicted of voluntary manslaughter for her role in the murder of Woodbridge resident Larry McNabney, may have her sentence cut from 11 years to six, the 3rd District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The decision will be up to a San Joaquin County jury.
Nevertheless, Deputy District Attorney ThomasTesta said he is confident that Dutra's sentence will ultimately remain at 11 years and not be reduced.
Testa said he got several phone calls Thursday from people who mistakenly thought that Dutra's conviction was reversed.
She was convicted in San Joaquin Superior Court in spring 2003 for helping to fatally poison 52-year-old McNabney. She was charged with first-degree murder with special circumstances, but escaped a life sentence with no parole when jurors found her guilty only of manslaughter.
On appeal, Dutra's lawyers said that since the jury acquitted her of murder she didn't have the state of mind necessary to commit voluntary manslaughter.
"It was exactly how we argued our case," said U.S. Attorney Catherine Tennant, who tried the case at the appellate court level. "I'm pleased with the ruling because it affirms the conviction."
The appeal was filed in March after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, known as Blakely v. Washington, questioned how much discretion judges have when imposing sentences. The case reopened dozens across the country in which judges, rather than juries, decided the sentence, according to Attorney General spokesman Nathan Barankin.
It is the first to be returned to San Joaquin County.
Confident with 11-year sentence
Testa said he is confident that a Superior Court jury will determine findings necessary for Judge Bernard Garber to issue the maximum-allowed 11-year sentence.
For Garber to be allowed to give the maximum sentence, a jury must conclude that Dutra showed a high degree of callousness and that she was responsible for significant financial loss to the victims, Tennant said.
"We will have to have a mini-trial; my guess is less than a week," Testa said.
A new jury would have to be seated since the one that convicted Dutra has been dismissed, Testa said.
However, the new hearing would be more brief because the new jury would only have to recommend sentencing, not whether or not Dutra is guilty, he added.
Dutra's attorney, Cynthia Thomas, could not be reached for comment.
In their unpublished opinion, appellate court justices wrote that the "defendant is a murderer."
Further, they found the evidence used to justify the trial judge's imposition of the maximum punishment was lacking and that the mid-term punishment was more appropriate. The justices gave prosecutors the opportunity to retain the upper term sentence at a future hearing, if they choose.
"The People may wish to try to retain the upper term," they wrote of the 11-year sentence. "On the other hand, the Attorney General, in the exercise of discretion in consultation with the San Joaquin County District Attorney, may choose to accept the midterm.
"We will conditionally remand to allow the People to choose."
The justices also decided there were no Miranda rights violations, that Dutra spoke to San Joaquin County Sheriff's deputies knowingly.
"Although (Det. Debbie) Scheffel had to unlock the station to enter, the interview room was unlocked and defendant was not restrained," they wrote of the night Dutra was interviewed by deputies. "Defendant had been told she was not under arrest. …No guns were drawn that night and defendant had not been frisked."
Sims: Dutra's close friend
Dutra, a college student, worked at McNabney's law practice which was taken over by Laren Jordan Sims, McNabney's wife.
Dutra and Sims became quick friends and were often seen together shopping or at parties, according to witnesses. In fact, court testimony shows, they invited Joe McNabney, Larry's son, out partying even as his father's body was in a refrigerator at the Woodbridge house McNabney and Sims shared.
The couple lived in an exclusive gated Woodbridge community for several months before McNabney's death.
Sims issued McNabney a fatal dose of horse tranquilizer the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Dutra helped Sims move McNabney in a wheelchair, knowing he had been poisoned, but did not call the police or try to save his life, trial evidence showed.
His body was found by farm workers in February 2002, buried in a shallow grave in a vineyard south of Clements.
About a month before her husband's body was found, Sims and her teen-age daughter from a previous marriage went on the run as authorities began asking about the missing lawyer. She was arrested in Florida, but she hanged herself in a jail cell there in April 2002, while California authorities were attempting to extradite her.
McNabney, who made a name for himself in Reno as a personal injury lawyer, was a well-built, 6 foot tall man, known to wear a cowboy hat and jeans when he wasn't at work in a suit and tie. He had recently gotten into showing horses and was one of the top in the nation when he was killed.