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Mother is sentenced in children's deaths

April 23, 2001

Mother is sentenced in children's deaths



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

Sara Louise HowardPhoto: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

After a tongue lashing by Circuit Judge David Sanders Monday, Sara Louise Howard was sentenced to serve from 6 to 30 years in prison in connection with the deaths of her three children in a Nov. 13, 1999, house fire.

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Under a plea agreement, Howard pleaded no contest to three counts of child neglect leading to death.

As part of the agreement hammered out in January, the prosecution dropped three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of felony murder, one count of arson and one count of child neglect unrelated to the fire.

Sanders said a "painstakingly thorough" pre-sentence review of all factors of the case painted a gruesome picture of how Howard's 3-year-old twins Corey and Brandi and their 4-year-old brother Mason had died.

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He said blame fell on Howard, 38, for failing to try to save her children.

"Frankly, it makes a person sick to read accounts of this - the callousness, the coldness," he said of the actions outlined in the pre-sentence report prepared by a Berkeley County probation officer. The report, prepared as part of normal sentencing procedure, was not made public.

Howard had been charged with setting a fire in a downstairs chair of her house at 221. E. Liberty St., then climbing out a window in an upstairs bedroom where Brandi and Corey slept. Mason was in another upstairs room.

All three children died of smoke inhalation within a week of the fire.

Sanders said police and fire investigators accepted the pleas "but not with any enthusiasm."

He said only charges can be prosecuted that can be proven.

The more serious charges were dropped after scientific testing failed to turn up any trace of an accelerant in connection with the fire.

Lack of proof did not mean lack of responsibility, Sanders said. He accused Howard of abdicating her most basic responsibility to take care of those "who can't protect themselves or speak for themselves," her children. He said she climbed over the body of Corey on her way out of the house.

"They were victims of a very cruel failure to care or protect or to sustain their lives," Sanders said. He said that on the night of the fire, Howard put her own "selfish" interests above those of her children.

"She took the only things that mattered to her, her cigarettes, her cigarette lighter and her glasses," Sanders said.

He added: "The simplest things would have saved these children, the simplest act by the mother."

Sanders said Howard is incapable of having any more children.

"No other child will ever flow from this creature, this person before us, which is a good thing," Sanders said.

Howard said nothing at the hearing. She sat impassively as Sanders spoke, but was crying as she was led out of the courthouse.

Her attorney, Homer Speaker, did not comment.

Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said outside the courtroom that she believed Howard could have grabbed at least Corey as she climbed out the window of the house.

Defense lawyers have said the fire started accidentally and that Howard was awakened by the fire and panicked by the smoke. They have said she told police she tried to save the children.

Police and prosecutors focused on Howard to the exclusion of other possibilities, her attorneys have said.

Sanders spent about 20 minutes reviewing the case and acknowledged that no matter what investigators and others thought had happened, they could prove nothing beyond the neglect resulting in death charges.

"It is with a rather sickening, heavy feeling that this court accepts the plea," Sanders said. "In the end, here we are, back where we started. This court cannot force a different result of this case."

Games-Neely said that despite her personal beliefs, she could prove only the child neglect charge. She added, however, "I'm a believer in divine justice."

Sanders ended his comments on a similar note, telling Howard she had not heard the last of "the horrible circumstances you brought about."

"Exactly what happened that evening and whatever suppositions or hunches are there, no one will ever know except you and your maker," he said. "You will have to answer another day."

The sentence.

Sara Louise Howard was sentenced to serve two sentences of from three to 15 years each for the deaths of Corey Howard and Brandi Howard. The sentences will run consecutively, meaning one will follow the other.

She received the same sentence for Mason Howard's death, but that sentence will run concurrently with the second 3-to 15-year sentence because prosecutors said she might not have been able to save Mason under any circumstances.

Under state law, she will serve a maximum of 15 years if she causes no trouble in prison.

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