Attorney wants charges against Howard dropped

November 02, 2000

Attorney wants charges against Howard dropped

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W. Va. - The defense attorney for a woman whose three children died after a fire in their home a year ago said he will ask in court Monday that arson and murder charges against his client be dropped because an independent expert has determined no gasoline was used to set the fire.

"To us, this whole case has been absolutely unbelievable because we never believed she set the fire," said Sara Howard's defense attorney Jerome Dambro.

Howard is charged with murder, arson and neglect leading to the death of a child after her house at 211 E. Liberty St. caught fire on the morning of Nov. 13, 1999.

She climbed out an upstairs window in the bedroom where two of her children were sleeping as the fire started to consume the structure. The children, 3-year-old twins and a 4-year-old sleeping in another room, later died.


Murder and arson charges were filed after the state crime laboratory in January determined gasoline was present at the origin of the fire.

The defense hired forensic expert Dirk Hedglin of Michigan, who worked on the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. Hedglin, who said he used more sophisticated equipment than did the state lab, determined that no gasoline was present.

The defense and prosecution then agreed to let independent expert John DeHaan of California make a judgment.

"He looked at the state test results and at my test results," Hedglin said Wednesday. "His conclusion was the same as mine - there was no gasoline present."

With no accelerant to start the fire, the issue of intent to set the fire is gone, Dambro said. He said he will ask Judge David Sanders Monday to set bond of $20,000 for Howard and drop the arson and murder charges.

Howard has been jailed without bond since the murder and arson charges were filed.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said Wednesday she had not been officially notified of the independent test results.

"I'm waiting for confirmation," Games-Neely said.

She said Dambro could file a motion to reduce the charges and she would deal with it once she has the official results.

She would not say whether she would drop the charges if there were no identifiable deliberate cause of the fire.

"We would have to reconsider the evidence," she said.

Dambro and Hedglin said the state laboratory must go through a specific procedure if personnel there change their finding.

A spokesman at the state lab said he could not comment on the case.

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