"You say no contest. The court says guilty," Sanders told her in court Friday morning.
"She stands just as convicted as if a jury found her guilty," he added.
Howard was charged with setting a fire in a chair downstairs in her house, then climbing out a window in the upstairs bedroom of her 3-year-old twins, Brandi and Corey. Her 4-year-old son Mason was in another upstairs room. All three children died within a week of the fire from smoke inhalation.
Howard was initially charged with three counts of child neglect causing death. But when tests done by the state and reinforced by a private laboratory showed gasoline was present in the chair, she was indicted on murder and arson charges.
An independent expert this fall said no gasoline or other accelerant was present.
Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said she accepted the plea because "the change in science" that produced new test results diminished her case. She still believes the fire was deliberately set, she said.
"But this is a matter between what I believe and what I can prove," she told Sanders.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Christopher Quasebarth told Sanders, "The state recognizes that the 12 reasonable minds of the jury may reasonably disagree with the facts of the arson. And, in fact, the defense only needs one reasonable mind to disagree."
Defense attorney Jerome Dambro said the "high emotional content of the case" could have led to conviction on all charges, despite the evidence. It also could have led jurors to convict her of the child neglect causing death charges even if jurors believed she didn't set the fire.
"It's a gamble," he said. "It was a very difficult decision to make."
He said a defense arson investigator just concluded "in all probability" the fire was caused by smoking. Howard is a smoker and could have accidentally dropped a cigarette in the chair, Dambro said.
Howard told police she awoke from the smoke, came down the upstairs hallway, then had to decide whether to go to the room with her twins or with Mason. She went into the room with the twins and walked over Corey on her way to the window, Games-Neely said.
"The actions she took are inexcusable and are the reasons for which she is being convicted," Games-Neely said. "These three children died because this mother failed to protect them."
The dropped charge of child neglect stemmed from a June 1999 incident in which Howard allegedly left Brandi unsupervised.
Dambro said "no one knows exactly what happened" Nov. 13. But he disputed that Howard did not try to save the twins.
"In the police report, she said she attempted to get the kids out when she opened the window," he said.
Her failure to do so may have led to her acceptance of the plea Friday, he said.
"She feels, as any loving mother, she has a lot of hurt," he said. "Part of her decision may have been her punishing herself."
Howard could have received a term of three to 15 years for each death if the convictions ran consecutively - as she finished one sentence the next one would begin.
Prosecutors agreed the terms for Brandi's death could run the same time as the term for Mason's. That's because she may been unable to save Mason under any circumstances, the prosecutor said.
The term for Corey's death will run when those are finished.
In a letter written to Mason just before the fire which Games-Neely said was intended for him to read when he became an adult, Sara Howard explained to him why she was putting him up for adoption.
Dambro said that did not indicate she wanted to get rid of the children.
"She was being pressured by the husband" for the adoption, he said. "She loved those kids."
Police and fire investigators who worked on the case said they agreed with the plea, telling Sanders it brought accountability and closure to the tragedy.
"I think it is reasonable ... and just," said Capt. David Brining of the Martinsburg Fire Department.