Four years after she was convicted of fatally poisoning her attorney boss, Sarah Elizabeth Dutra returned to court Thursday for the latest legal battle - whether she should serve her 11-year sentence or get a lighter sentence that could result in her release.
Convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the Sept. 11, 2001, death of Lawrence McNabney, 52, of Woodbridge, Dutra's case has twice gone to an appeals court. Both times, justices sent it back for a new sentencing hearing, saying a jury should have decided whether Dutra, now 26, deserved the maximum sentence.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case backed the decision, so San Joaquin County prosecutors must re-try the sentencing portion of Dutra's case before a new jury.
When that trial will happen remains to be seen, because Judge Cinda Fox was only assigned to the case Thursday morning. She said she wants to read the entire transcript of the two-month trial, as well as appellate decisions and other documents.
The judge declined a defense request to release Dutra from jail on as little as $30,000 bail, but said she will take up the matter at a March 28 court date.
In arguing for bail, Deputy Public Defender Keith Arthur, who was appointed to handle the case Thursday, said Dutra poses no flight risk and could live with her family while the case continues. Six of her family members, including her mother, grandmother and younger sister, traveled from Vacaville for the court appearance, as they have every day since Dutra was arrested in February 2002.
Additionally, Arthur said, Dutra could be eligible for parole in 37 days if she gets a six-year sentence.
But Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa had harsh words for Dutra, who was convicted of helping McNabney's wife dose him with a lethal amount of horse tranquilizer, then storing his body for months in a refrigerator at his Woodbridge home.
"Any promise she may make to appear is worthless because her word is worthless," Testa said, telling the judge that Dutra gave Sheriff's investigators conflicting stories and also lied to her family.
"On Sept. 11, when the World Trade Center towers were coming down and we were all glued to our television sets, she was driving through Yosemite … with this man in the car," Testa said, giving Fox a brief account of the complex case that has resulted in two true-crime books, a made-for-TV movie and more than one TV special. "She was poisoning him and he was saying, 'You're not going to get away with this.'"
McNabney and his wife, Elisa McNabney, had been attending a horse show in Southern California when Dutra, a Sacramento college student who worked in his office, joined them that September. The last time McNabney was seen alive, the two women had put the normally robust man into a wheelchair, wheeled him out of a hotel and driven him away in his red pick-up truck.
For the next several months, the two women continued to run his law office by cashing checks that had come in to settle personal injury cases. Another employee finally reported the boss missing and authorities began investigating.
In February 2002, McNabney's body was found buried in a Clements vineyard. His 36-year-old wife had since disappeared and Sheriff's officials learned her real name was Laren Sims, though she had used more than two dozen aliases.
She was captured in Florida, where she surrendered to authorities, gave a video-taped confession in which she implicated Dutra, then committed suicide in her jail cell on Easter Sunday morning.
Dutra then stood trial on murder charges, and a San Joaquin County jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter. Judge Bernard Garber gave her the maximum penalty of 11 years in state prison, a sentencing her appellate attorney fought.
Under California law, most crimes have three punishments that range from lower and middle to upper terms. Judges are expected to impose the middle term unless specific circumstances warrant the lower or upper terms. Voluntary manslaughter carries possible penalties of three, six or 11 years.
Among the instances Garber cited for giving the maximum sentence was the time Dutra invited McNabney's son to party with her and Sims at the Woodbridge house - though he had no idea that his father's body was in the refrigerator.
But the Third District Court of Appeals said such a decision should be left to a jury and sent it back to Garber. Similar cases were being dealt with in other appeals courts, and Garber cited another case when he declined to reopen the sentencing issue.
In December, the appellate court issued a nearly identical ruling, only this time removing Garber from the case.
Dutra, who had been in a women's prison in Chowchilla, returned to the San Joaquin County Jail last week. Her shoulder-length hair recently dyed lighter blonde, Dutra again wore orange jail clothing as she entered a courtroom Thursday morning and smiled at her family.
Attorneys could not comment on the case because Fox, "under an abundance of caution," agreed to a temporary gag order preventing involved people from talking about the case. The request came from Arthur, who said he'd only been officially assigned to the case five minutes earlier.