Sarah Dutra's chances of getting a jury to give her a lighter sentence for manslaughter and let her out of jail have been all but dashed by a state appeals court.
In an order that was sent out last week and filed Tuesday, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that a judge alone will reevaluate Dutra's 11-year sentence for manslaughter.
Dutra, now 27, was convicted of manslaughter for helping poison her boss, attorney Larry McNabney, with horse tranquilizer on Sept. 11, 2001, at a horse show in Southern California. She was accused of helping McNabney's wife, Elisa, hide the man's body in a refrigerator in his Woodbridge home, then lying to clients and family about his whereabouts.
Elisa McNabney, whose identity was later revealed as Laren Sims and a host of other names, fled the state four months later. She was captured in Florida, where she committed suicide in a jail cell.
Dutra, then a college student in Sacramento, stood trial on murder charges. After two months of testimony, a San Joaquin County jury convicted her of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
The crime carries a penalty of three, six or 11 years in state prison. At the time, California law required that judges hand down the middle term unless they found aggravating or mitigating factors to support one of the other terms.
In Dutra's case, Garber gave her the maximum sentence and pointed to the $150,000 in settlement checks intended for McNabney's clients, which Dutra helped his wife cash and spend.
As the case worked through the appeals process, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an unrelated sentence, ruling in 2004 that a jury should decide such sentencing factors rather than a judge.
Dutra's case was one of many sent back for a new sentencing hearing, meaning that a new jury would have to be impaneled and would have to hear the facts all over again.
But in July, the California Supreme Court changed sentencing law so that a judge is not required to issue the middle term of a sentence. Instead, the judge may hand down any of the three terms. For those cases that had been sent back for sentencing trials, a judge can reconsider the original sentence, rather than place the matter before a jury.
Local prosecutors in August asked the appellate court to clarify Dutra's case and on Sept. 11 - six years to the day that McNabney disappeared - justices said the matter may be heard by a judge rather than a jury. Their decision was given to all parties involved and then filed Tuesday.
Dutra, who has been held in the county jail since her case was brought back in March, is scheduled to return to court Oct. 1. A trial date of Oct. 29 has been stayed and will likely be canceled.