Accused Barbara Howe killer to plead guilty to lesser charges

Daniel French who is charged with the murder of 87-year-old Barbara Howe is scheduled to plead guilty next week to lesser felony charges that are part of the crime.

French, 56, who grew up in Middletown but was living in Berea, Ky. when arrested, faces the death penalty if convicted of the 2012 murder of Howe, a Monroe resident and the wife of a once-prominent Middletown car dealer.

He is charged with aggravated murder as well as aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.

During Friday’s pre-trial hearing in Butler County Common Pleas Court, defense attorney Melynda Cook said French had signed a plea form to enter a guilty plea to all but the aggravated murder charge.

It was a surprise move that both Judge Charles Pater and prosecutors were not aware of before the courtroom announcement.

In fact, Cook said, “he (French) has offered to plead in full (including aggravated murder) with the promise of life without the possibility of parole.”

That guilty plea to all charges with the sentence of life in prison has been rejected by the prosecution, Cook said.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said loud and clear in court, “that is correct. It has been rejected. The state will proceed to trial.”

Gmoser has been vocal about the crime stating in December after French’s arrest, “The shear brutality and diabolical nature of this case really is unparalleled in the history of this county. In my 40-some years of being an attorney here I’ve never seen anything as horrific as this, in the planning and the diabolical nature.”

Audio of French's 40-minute taped confession of Howe's murder will be part of the evidence at his trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 19.

In that recording, French admitted to choking Howe to death at her Mount Pleasant Retirement Village cottage during a robbery attempt, then slitting her throat, trying to destroy evidence by hiding her body in the trunk of her red Cadillac and driving the car to a Middletown apartment complex where he ditched it.

A plea hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday at the request of more time by the prosecution.

“I appreciate this plea … but we want to weigh the impact going forward,” Gmoser said.

French’s guilty pleas to the lesser charges would limit the amount of evidence about certain aspects of the crimes that can be presented to the jury at trial.

Gmoser said the move is trial strategy by the defense, and “there needs to be careful consideration before it takes place.”

After the hearing, Gmoser told the Journal-News he would not accept a guilty plea to aggravated murder with the assurance of life without parole because French’s fate should be decided by Butler County resident, not through a prosecutor’s decision.

“This case is so unique, that it requires a jury of 12 to decide,” Gmoser said.

Donna Wesselman, Barbara Howe’s daughter, said she fully supports the case going to trial.

“I support Mike Gmoser in his thinking on this case,” Wesselman said. “I also think while a trial is going to be brutal on my family, it is going to be infinitely more brutal for Daniel French. And if anybody needs to relive the horror of what he did, it is Daniel French. I am not going to make it easy on him to go quietly into prison.”

Also at Friday’s hearing, the judge reversed a previous ruling about sequestration of the jury. His previous decision required the jury to be sequestered from deliberations in the trial phase through the penalty phase when a decision is reached. The defense filed a motion late last month to have the decision reconsidered because it would limit the jurors who could serve.

Pater said he agreed and also said he felt the jurors would be able to avoid media coverage of the trial without being sequestered for a long period of time.

“I believe jurors will be able to do what they are always told to do in trials,” Pater said.

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