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W.Va. prosecutor says charges to stand in fire death case

November 06, 2000

W.Va. prosecutor says charges to stand in fire death case



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely refused Monday to drop murder charges against a woman accused in the deaths of her three children, although she acknowledged her case was weakened by new forensic test results.

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In a hearing before Circuit Judge David Sanders, Games-Neely agreed new tests show that gasoline was not used to set a fire that claimed the lives of Sara Howard's children Nov. 13, 1999.

"All our experts agree it's most probably arson," Games-Neely said in an interview. "But we may not be able to prove it."

Howard was charged with setting the fire at her 211 E. Liberty St. home, then climbing out a window of the bedroom in which two of her children were sleeping. Another child was sleeping in another room.

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Corey Howard, 3, died later that night from smoke inhalation and complications from the heat of the fire. His older brother Mason, 4, died Nov. 17, and Corey's twin sister, Brandi, died Nov. 18.

Tests by the state crime laboratory and a private firm found gasoline in the fire debris. A defense expert, using a more sophisticated test, determined no gasoline was present, and an independent expert agreed.

That led Howard's attorney, Jerome Dambro, to ask for a reduction in bail and to say in court he would file a motion to drop murder and arson charges.

"A gasoline accelerant this is not," Games-Neely said in court. "This is a critical piece of evidence the state does not have. But there are other issues that still give validity to my indictment."

In an interview, she said other possible sources of arson were being examined.

Dambro said in court that Games-Neely had said many times in court and in the news media that if the state didn't have an accelerant, it didn't have a murder case.

"Every pronouncement she has made before ... she has retracted" by refusing to drop the charges, Dambro said.

"She is backtracking on the whole case," he said. "There is no gasoline. That's the bottom line. There is no accelerant."

In an interview, Dambro said the grand jury indicted Howard on the basis of incorrect test results, and therefore the indictment should be tossed out.

"You can't try somebody on a new theory when you indicted them on an old theory," said Dambro, who called the tests run by the state "junk science."

Games-Neely said the tests are like those for fingerprints - to prove they belong to someone you have to match 17 points.

"This is like we only had 14 points," she said of the state test results. She asked the independent expert to explore other possible causes, she said.

Dambro said he will file a motion this week asking that the murder and arson charges against Howard be dropped.

Games-Neely said that no matter what happens, she would try Howard on charges of neglect causing the death of a child.

Sanders said he would rule on the motion to set bond at $20,000 once he has seen the written report from the expert.

The trial was first scheduled for Nov. 14 and then was pushed back until February. The judge has yet to rule on a motion for a change of venue.

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