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Grand jury to weigh fire deaths

January 24, 2000

Sara HowardBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Magistrate Ruth A. Donaldson determined Monday that sufficient evidence existed to continue charges that Sara Louise Howard neglected her three children during a fire that claimed their lives last November.

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Howard's case now will be heard by a grand jury, which will decide whether to indict her.

Relying on testimony from police and fire investigators and a videotaped statement from Howard, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Greg Jones methodically laid out his case against Howard, who has been charged with three counts of child neglect leading to death.

Jones said the law requires parents to make a reasonable effort to protect their children.

"Then if it's unreasonable, it's neglect," he said. "What did she do? She decided to go out her window and not take any of her children with her. She literally had to step over her children to get out."

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Defense attorney Homer Speaker depicted his client as a scared woman who awoke to smoke in the middle of the night in her second-floor home.

Unlike traditional allegations of child neglect, he said this case centers not on whether the children were properly fed, clothed and cared for, but on what Howard did in a burning building.

"What the state is saying here is if an emergency occurs and you don't do certain things, we're coming after you. We're prosecuting you," Speaker said.

Speaker said the state's decision to prosecute Howard sets a dangerous precedent.

"What is happening here scares me silly. A tragedy occurred, and the state is compounding that tragedy," he said. "You have children who lived in a home with a mother who loved them. And then the house caught on fire. It's an emergency."

The fire broke out in the early morning hours of Nov. 13 at 211 E. Liberty St. Twins Brandi and Corey Howard, 3, and Mason Howard, 4, died as a result of smoke inhalation. Corey died the night of the fire, Mason died Nov. 17 and Brandi on Nov. 18.

Sara Howard, 37, escaped through the window of the twins' bedroom.

The case hinges on whether she did enough to try to save their lives.

Capt. David Brining, a fire investigator with the Martinsburg Fire Department, testified that Howard awoke, smelled smoke and went to the twins' room. She opened the window, stood on the mattress where Corey was sleeping and climbed out the window above the bed, he testified.

At some point, the window closed and Howard told authorities she could not open it, Brining said.

Brining testified that Howard did not appear hurt from the fire and was not admitted to the hospital for treatment. He said she had few smoke stains on her clothes or body, other than on her face and fingers, when he questioned her at City Hospital about an hour and 45 minutes after the fire.

"She actually appeared to be very disassociated from the event, really. She was very emotionless," he said. "What really struck me was when the nurse came into the room and offered her the opportunity to see her children, she made no effort whatsoever to do that."

On cross-examination, Speaker tried to get Brining to acknowledge that different people react in different ways to emergencies.

Brining responded that he cannot recall anyone having Howard's reaction to dying children.

The questioning grew tense.

"Isn't it possible she just wanted to be done with you so you would leave here alone?" Speaker asked.

Brining said he thought it was unlikely.

"You have no idea how you would react in the same situation because you've never been there, have you?" Speaker asked him.

Detective Sgt. George Swartwood of the Martinsburg Police Department testified that Howard had once put her twins up for adoption. She changed her mind, but then had decided to put all three children up for adoption, he said.

In her videotaped statement, which was taken on Dec. 6, Howard said giving up her children was an extremely difficult choice. She and her husband had separated about a month and a half earlier.

"And I was not financially stable. And I feel I could not afford to give them the life that I wanted to," she said.

Swartwood pressed Howard on several points during the videotaped questioning: Why did she take a pillow from the bed, but not the child?

"I must have reached in the bed and just grabbed," she answered. "I must have reached in and thought it was them."

Howard said she kept calling for her children to follow her out the window. But Swartwood asked why she did not pick up either of the children who were in the room and carry them outside.

"That doesn't make any sense to me, especially when you're standing on the bed," he said.

Swartwood also asked Howard how the window closed.

"I don't remember. All I know is the window went shut," she answered.

Howard told Swartwood that she tried to cover her face with the pillow case, but the smoke was too strong. She said she called for help out the window.

"I panicked. I freaked or something. I don't know," she said.

Jones said it would clearly be unreasonable to expect a parent to run into a burning building to save a child. But "That isn't the case here," he said.

Speaker said it is not true that Howard did nothing to try to save her children's lives. She called for them to come to her at the window, he said. She called for help outside the window, eventually being heard by a neighbor who called 911.

"If that's true, then by definition there can be no neglect," he said.

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