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Judge denies Dutra's request for trial

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Posted: Monday, September 12, 2005 10:00 pm

Four years after a Woodbridge attorney was given a lethal dose of horse tranquilizer, a San Joaquin County judge Monday denied a new sentencing trial for Sarah Elizabeth Dutra, who was convicted of the crime.

The latest twist in the case of the death of Laurence McNabney means Dutra, now 25, will return to state prison to continue serving an 11-year sentence for manslaughter. Her attorney vowed outside court to appeal Monday's decision.

At issue was the sentence length: Dutra's attorney had argued that because she had no criminal history the former art major should have only been sentenced to five years.

A thin, shackled Dutra, whose blonde hair appeared to be newly highlighted and was pulled back in a short ponytail, shuffled slowly into a Stockton courtroom. She smiled broadly at family members in the room, then chatted with appellate attorney Cynthia Thomas while waiting for court to begin.

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said juries must decide some sentences, Judge Bernard J. Garber cited a more recent court decision as he ruled against Dutra.

The latest case involved Kevin Michael Black, a Visalia man who was convicted of molesting several children and then sentenced to the maximum term of 46 years to life in prison. His case worked through appeals courts as he argued that a judge should not have the discretion to impose the highest sentence.

The California Supreme Court in June ruled that Black's sentence would stand, and that the federal decision did not affect California's sentencing procedures.

For most felonies in California, there are three possible sentences. Dutra, who was convicted by jury of voluntary manslaughter, faced a prison term of three, five or 11 years.

In March 2003, Garber imposed the 11-year sentence, ruling that there were "aggravating factors" that warranted the maximum term.

Dutra had been arrested two years earlier and charged with murder in the death of McNabney, a 52-year-old lawyer for whom she had worked as a legal secretary while attending California State University, Sacramento.

McNabney was last seen alive Sept. 11, 2001, as his wife and Dutra pushed him in a wheelchair out of a Southern California hotel. The horse showman had apparently become so weakened by the poison that he could no longer walk on his own.

The attorney was never seen again, but Dutra and his wife continued running his Sacramento office for several months. Witnesses would later testify at trial that the two women said he had joined a cult or gone into rehab, among other excuses.

In the meantime, they cashed settlement checks intended for injury victims, then finally closed the office at the end of the year and moved operations to the McNabneys' Woodbridge home.

Only later would authorities learn that McNabney's body had been stored for months in a refrigerator in the Woodbridge garage.

His wife -- known locally as Elisa McNabney but to authorities as a variety of names including Laren Sims -- then apparently buried his body and fled the state.

By then, Sacramento and San Joaquin county investigators had begun searching, and the case took a turn when Clements farmworkers found McNabney's body in a shallow, make-shift grave.

Sims was found in Florida, while Dutra was arrested after several interviews with detectives. After confessing to murder and implicating Dutra, Sims committed suicide in a Florida jail cell on Easter morning of 2002.

Dutra was left to face murder charges, and her two-month trial ended with a manslaughter verdict.

In giving the former honor student and art major the maximum 11-year sentence, Garber pointed to several "aggravating factors" that showed "callousness." Among the things he singled out was a late fall 2001 incident when Dutra called McNabney's son and invited him to a the Woodbridge home -- though he had no idea his father's body was in the refrigerator.

Monday's court appearance was brief, though Dutra's relatives traveled from at least as far as Vacaville, as they have every time over the past several years. They declined to comment after the judge's decision.

Though the case is likely to work its way back through the appeals process, Dutra is currently scheduled to spend roughly six more years in prison.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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