Life in Prison for Decade-Old Slaying Once Considered an AccidentJOHN K. WILEY , Associated Press
Dec. 4, 1986 7:34 PM ET
YAKIMA, WASH. YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ A man was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for bludgeoning his wife to death with a claw hammer in a crime considered an accident for nearly a decade as the dead woman's relatives sought a trial.
Noyes Russell Howard, 56, convicted Oct. 31 of first-degree murder in the January 1975 death of his wife Donna, received life in prison with a mandatory 20-year minimum from Yakima County Superior Court Judge F. James Gavin.
Mrs. Howard's sister, Bobbi Bennett, and other relatives spent thousands of dollars trying to prove Mrs. Howard did not die from a horse's kick, as two autopsies concluded.
They paid to have Mrs. Howard's body exhumed for the second autopsy, and sent the report to forensic pathologists, including Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles medical examiner. Noguchi concluded the report was inadequate to determine cause of death.
Ms. Bennett sought help from then-Gov. John Spellman, who in 1981 ordered an investigation by the attorney general's criminal division. The murder charge was filed in 1984.
With time off for good behavior, Howard could be eligible for parole in 13 years and eight months, said Greg Canova, the senior state assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case.
Canova had sought a minimum 30-year term, which would have left Howard ineligible for parole until he served 20 years.
Gavin continued Howard's bail at $250,000 pending an appeal, which defense attorney Wes Raber said could take a minimum of two or three years.
Before pronouncing sentence, Gavin denied four defense motions for a retrial or dismissal.
Howard, wearing a green plaid shirt and brown slacks, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion as the sentence was announced.
Ms. Bennett said after the sentencing she was ''grateful the state came in'' to try the case.
Mrs. Howard's body was found in a horse shed on the couple's property near Gleed, about five miles northwest of Yakima.
During the trial, Canova introduced medical experts who concluded Mrs. Howard's skull wounds had been caused by a claw hammer or hammer-like object.
The state's key witness was Karen ''Pepper'' Howard, who had dated Howard in the year before his first wife's death and who later married him.
She testified Howard had told her before they were married that he planned to kill his wife and make it appear to be an accident. Later, he admitted killing his wife by striking her three times with a claw hammer, she testified.
Howard denied killing his wife.