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Judge keeps W.Va. murder case

November 28, 2000|By BOB PARTLOW

Judge keeps W.Va. murder case



MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The murder case against a Martinsburg, W.Va., woman continues to move toward a February 2001 trial in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

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Circuit Court Judge David Sanders Monday declined to dismiss felony charges against Sara Louise Howard, 37, or disqualify Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely from prosecuting the case in which three of Howard's children died following a house fire last year. Both motions before Sanders came from the defense.

Howard was indicted by a Berkeley County grand jury in May 1999 and charged with three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of felony murder, three counts of child neglect resulting in death, one count of child neglect and one count of arson following the Nov. 13, 1999 fire at her home at 211 W. Liberty St., in Martinsburg.

Sanders Monday set bond for Howard at $30,000. She had been held without bond.

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On Nov. 13, 1999, Howard passed her 3-year-old twins Corey and Brandi and 4-year-old Mason as she climbed through a window onto a porch roof to escape the 2:43 a.m. fire, according to allegations in court records.

Corey Howard, 3, died the night of the fire 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.

Following the children's deaths, Howard was charged in Berkeley County Magistrate Court with three counts of felony child neglect resulting in death. Howard turned herself in Jan. 14, 2000, after warrants for her arrest on those charges were issued. The grand jury then indicted Howard on multiple felony counts.

Howard had been held without bond since earlier this year. Her attorney, Jerome Dambro, said it was unclear whether Howard is able to post the $30,000 bond.

Dambro also said the defense may appeal Sander's Monday rulings.

Attorney Homer Speaker argued before the judge that the case should be dismissed because it was built before the Berkeley County grand jury on the foundation that gasoline was present as an "accelerant." He noted that a key piece of evidence against Howard is "in grave doubt."

The West Virginia Division of Public Safety Crime Lab determined gasoline was present in a couch where the fire started but an independent expert later determined it was not. Speaker argued that since the evidence of gasoline presented to the grand jury was "false, misleading, and wrong" the case should be dismissed.

"What does the state have to fear by doing what is right?" Speaker asked. "Dismiss the charges. Re-present to the grand jury and see what happens."

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Hassam Rasheed argued the defense has to show prosecutors intentionally misled the jury. That is not the case, as even the defense acknowledged, he said.

Such a dismissal can be allowed only "in very limited circumstances," he said.

Rasheed also told Sanders that the state has other evidence it is weighing in pursuing the murder and arson charges. Games-Neely said material from the fire source was being tested by the FBI to determine what kind of fiber it is. That could weigh in a final decision about what to do, she said.

Sanders agreed the information presented to the grand jury was based on "a reasonable mistake" in the reading of the evidence. Since the grand jury does not have the final say, all evidence would be weighed by a trial jury, he said.

"The court does not want to substitute itself as a finder of fact," he said.

Sanders agreed with Rasheed that the defense has to meet a very high standard of blatant misconduct by a prosecutor to force removal from a case. He noted she had been "forthcoming" with the defense.

"We don't see the kind of bad faith or self-interest" that would cause her to be tossed from the case, Sanders said.

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