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W.Va. judge considers plea agreement in Howard case

April 22, 2001

W.Va. judge considers plea agreement in Howard case



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Circuit Court Judge David Sanders will announce today whether he will accept the plea agreement between Berkeley County prosecutors and Sara Louise Howard over the deaths of Howard's three children in a house fire Nov. 13, 1999.

The plea was prepared in January. The agreement dropped the most serious charges against Howard. She agreed to plead no contest to three counts of child neglect causing death under the plea agreement.

Prosecutors dropped three charges of murder, three charges of felony murder, one count of arson and a count of child neglect in return for her plea on the other charges. Howard, 38, could be imprisoned between six and 30 years.

Sanders wanted to get a pre-sentencing report from county officials before deciding whether to accept the plea, If he accepts it, he will then sentence her today. If not, the case will move forward toward a trial.

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"I never anticipate what a judge is going to do," said Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely. "We've received the pre-sentence report. We're in the process of reading it."

She said there appear to be no surprises as the case heads toward what could be its final hearing.

Howard's attorney Jerome Dambro could not be reached for comment.

Howard had been charged with setting a fire in a downstairs chair of her house at 211 E. Liberty St., 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 then said no gasoline or "accelerant" was present.

"This was a recognition of what changed in the science" that led to the plea, Games-Neely said.

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