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Defense says fatal fire in W.Va. was not set

October 16, 2000

Defense says fatal fire in W.Va. was not set



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - No fire starter was found in the home where three children died of smoke inhalation last Nov. 13, attorneys for a woman accused of killing her children told Circuit Judge Dave Sanders Monday.

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If that assertion by a defense expert holds up, it could significantly change the case against Sara L. Howard, accused of starting the fire, then crawling over her children's bodies to escape the house at 211 E. Liberty St.

"They'll have to drop the murder and arson charges because if there's no gas, there's no motive and no intentional fire setting," said Jerome Dambro, Howard's attorney in an interview after the court hearing. "They might still charge her with child neglect causing death, but that is not a crime of intent."

Howard had a three-year-old and four-year-old twins.

"This is critical to both sides," Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely told Sanders. She told the court she would have to consider changing the charges if tests show nothing was used to set the fire.

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The attorneys appeared before Sanders to discuss whether the high-profile case should be moved outside Berkeley County or an outside jury brought in because of pre-trial publicity. Sanders will look at two surveys of county residents on the issue then decide what to do. He will not make his decision public before the trial to avoid any further publicity, Games-Neely said.

"It would be impractical, but not impossible," to get an unbiased jury in Berkeley County, she said in court.

A survey Games-Neely had done of 200 potential jurors showed 58 percent said they would presume Howard innocent until proven guilty and 47 percent said she could receive a fair trial here. The survey is part of the court record.

A defense survey concluded 70 percent of the 291 potential jurors had heard of the case and 97 percent were biased. It also is part of the court record.

Their conclusion: "It is estimated that more than 500 panel members may be necessary to seat an unbiased jury." The problem is not just knowledge of the case, but the type of alleged crime, the survey concluded.

"You mention the death of a child and the mother not rescuing them and it's very emotional," no matter what the actual facts, Dambro said in an interview.

Dambro said Howard's expert witness is criminologist Dirk Hedglin of Michigan, who Dambro said worked on the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings.

"He went through the debris and found there was no accelerant," Dambro said in court of the Howard case.

The West Virginia State Crime Lab performed tests and came to a different conclusion. The difference in results might be a difference in procedures and methods used, both sides agreed. The two experts will confer and see if they can reach agreement.

"I think our tests were a little more sophisticated than the state's," Dambro said in an interview.

The state crime lab also has been under fire for sloppy work. "That might be an issue we explore down the road," Dambro said in an interview.

The trial is set for Nov. 14, although it could be delayed if the debris needs to be re-tested for a fire starter, both sides agreed.

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