Jury finds Daniel French guilty of Barbara Howe’s murder

There were plenty of tears shed Thursday afternoon when a Butler County jury found Daniel French guilty of killing 87-year-old Barbara Howe of Monroe. But not one of them was from the man who now faces the death penalty.

After seven days of testimony, the a jury of seven women and five men took just under two hours to convict French, 57, of Berea, Ky., of aggravated murder. The verdict wasn’t a total shock, French confessed to the 2012 brutal homicide at Mount Pleasant Retirement Community when police arrested him more than two years later.

Donna Wesselman, Howe’s daughter, and Pat Marshall, Howe’s sister, shook their heads and looked down as the verdict was read aloud in Butler County Common Pleas Judge Charles Pater’s courtroom. Wesselman wiped tears from her eyes.

“I needed this trial,” said Wesselman, who noted she was very tired. “I needed the truth to come out, and it did.”

Wesselman hugged a co-worker of French who was sitting with his family before leaving the courtroom. She said there was “no real feeling of elation” in the verdict.

LeeAnn Ifcic, French’s sister, wailed upon hearing the verdict, and a female juror was so overcome with emotion, she began crying also. As for French himself, he had no reaction, only looking straight ahead.

French’s defense attorneys had maintained Howe’s death was an accident as French told police in his confession. But prosecutors said the former Mount Pleasant maintenance man hatched a plan to rob Howe and others at the retirement community and never intended to leave a witness alive.

The jury began deliberations about 2:30 p.m. Thursday after more than four hours of closing arguments. The jury had a question about signing the verdict forms at 4:15 p.m., and less that five minutes later, the jury indicated it had reached a verdict.

Defense attorney Melynda Cook walked to the back row where French’s sisters sat and said, “A quick verdict like this is not a good sign.” Cook declined to comment after the verdict.

In his confession, French told police he wanted to die and that he deserved death for what he did. That decision now rests in the hands of the jury, which will enter into the penalty phase of the case Wednesday. Jurors will have the choice of giving French life without the possibility of parole, 30 years to life in prison, 25 years to life or the death penalty.

Cook is expected to call members of French’s family to testify as to why his life should be spared.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser also declined to comment after the verdict, but when he walked over to Howe’s family in the courtroom afterward, he said “he (French) will never walk the streets again.”

The jury could have found French guilty of the lesser included charges of murder or reckless homicide instead of aggravated murder. A murder conviction would have given French a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. He would serve that time on top of the lesser charges of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence that he pleaded guilty to on Oct. 14 prior to the start of his trial. French has yet to be sentenced on those charges but could face up to 27 years for them.

During closing arguments, Cook said prosecutors failed to prove that French killed Howe purposely and with prior calculation, which are needed to fit the aggravated murder charge. The defense has maintained that French went to Howe’s cottage to steal from her, not to kill her.

She said French came to Ohio in October 2012 to visit his sister and son and murder was not on his mind.

“Danny told the truth,” Cook said. “He didn’t drive from Kentucky on the 20th of October with the purpose to commit murder.”

But prosecutors say French drove from Berea, Ky. to Monroe with a plan to steal from Howe and others, and he was not going to leave any witnesses. Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said in his closing statement that after scamming his way into Howe’s home by telling her he needed to repair her medical alarm system, he had to revert to a plan B when Howe would not go down after being shocked with a stun gun.

“He took that stun gun and he hit her with it, but she didn’t go down. She didn’t go quietly into the night. He had to kill her,” Gmoser said, adding that Howe was still alive when he placed her in the crawl space of her home and came back later to slit her throat.

“Isn’t that prior calculation and design,” Assistant Prosecutor Brad Burress told the jury during closing arguments. “You can not slit someone’s throat four times and say you thought she was dead.”

But Cook called planning to kill someone in a retirement community with security and “nosy” neighbors the “worst plan ever.” She couched French’s actions after Howe was dead as “not a plan; that is confusion and what the heck do I do.”

Cook also pointed out the coroner’s report, which stated Howe was near death when her throat was cut.

“Danny believed she was dead,” she said.

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