SACRAMENTO -- Sarah Dutra, convicted in the death of a Woodbridge man, could be released from prison years earlier than expected if an appeal heard Monday is granted.
The appeal hinges, in part, on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that questions how much discretion judges have when imposing sentences.
Convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 11 years in prison for the death of attorney Larry McNabney, 24-year-old Dutra could have the sentence cut to five years, the standard manslaughter sentence. It could even be reduced to three years, meaning that she would have already served the time.
As they have throughout the years of court hearings since Dutra's February 2002 arrest, family members from both sides attended Monday's hearing before a three-justice panel of the Third District Court of Appeals in Sacramento.
Dutra's attorney argued that a jury should never have been given the option of convicting Dutra of manslaughter, while a state attorney told the justices that the option worked to Dutra's advantage. One thing they agreed on, though, is that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling now leaves open the question as to whether a San Joaquin County judge had the power to give Dutra the maximum sentence.
What started as Blakely v. Washington, regarding sentencing in a child molestation case, has now reopened cases across the country. In California, it's raised questions in "dozens and dozens of cases" in which judges, rather than juries, decided the sentence, Attorney General spokesman Nathan Barankin said.
Dutra's case is just one of them. If the case does come back to San Joaquin County because of the Blakely issue, it would be the first for the county, said Assistant District Attorney Jim Willett.
California's penalty for manslaughter is three, five or 11 years in state prison. Under sentencing guidelines, the standard sentence is five years, but if there are "aggravating factors," the maximum sentence can be imposed. That's what happened in Dutra's case.
For McNabney's grown children, the 11-year sentence wasn't enough, his daughter, Tavia Williams, said after court.
"We feel that she was given too much grace," said Williams, who traveled six hours Sunday night through snow and traffic from Reno to get to the hearing. "When she gets out of prison, she'll still be young enough to have a life."
The high-profile case now under consideration by the appeals court began more than three years ago. Local prosecutors and Sheriff's detectives built a case alleging that Dutra helped give her boss a fatal dose of horse tranquilizer.
For months before her arrest, Dutra had continued working at McNabney's Sacramento law office. According to two months of trial testimony, Dutra and McNabney's wife, Elisa, were close friends who did everything from smoking marijuana to riding horses together.
Law enforcement officials also alleged that the two women drugged McNabney at a Southern California horse show on Sept. 11, 2001, then hid his body for months in a refrigerator in his own Woodbridge home.
Five months later, his body turned up in a recently dug grave in Clements. His wife vanished, and only then did detectives learn that the woman's real name was Laren Sims, and that she had a long list of aliases.
Officials caught up to her in Florida, where she confessed to killing her husband, implicated Dutra in the crime, then hung herself in her jail cell on Easter morning. Dutra was left to stand trial on murder charges.
The jury chose not to convict Dutra of firstor second-degree murder, but instead opted for voluntary manslaughter.
At sentencing, Garber pointed to a number of what are considered "aggravating factors," such as showing callousness and planning, that warranted the maximum sentence.
Among them were the evidence that Dutra and Sims had practiced signing McNabney's names on settlement checks that were intended for law firm clients. The judge also pointed out a time when Dutra called McNabney's son and invited him to party at the Woodbridge home -- even while his father's body was in the garage refrigerator.
But the issue is whether those aggravating factors should have been left to a jury to decide. One such case is scheduled to be heard April 7 in the state's supreme court and could set the precedent for other cases, Barankin said.
In many cases, aggravating factors are not a debate because a defendant has a prior record, U.S. Attorney Catherine Tennant said after Monday's court session. Dutra, however, had no criminal record.
Also at issue Monday was whether the jury should have even been allowed to consider convicting Dutra of voluntary manslaughter, and whether Garber's jury instructions legally defined it as nearly the same thing as second-degree murder. Because the jurors rejected murder convictions, they should have only been left with a possibility of involuntary manslaughter, Dutra's court-appointed appellate attorney, Cynthia Thomas, told the justices.
But Justice Fred K. Morrison, citing trial testimony that indicated Dutra was an accomplice, made his own observation.
"She really benefited from this instruction. The record supported a second-degree murder conviction and the jury, in its wisdom, gave her manslaughter," he said.
The justices did not issue a ruling Monday or indicate when they would do so.
Tennant said she wouldn't be surprised if the sentencing part of the case is sent back to San Joaquin County for a jury to decide.
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Testa, who prosecuted Dutra, said he thought Dutra got a "break" from the jury. For now, he's watching the case, as is the McNabney family.
"It's just a waiting process," said McNabney's son, Joe McNabney. "(Dutra) should just keep quiet and quit wasting our tax dollars."
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at email@example.com.