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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gatrell pleads in murder case

Posted By on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 at 11:12 AM

Robert Gatrell
Robert Todd Gatrell, the older of two cousins accused of killing Michael Palmer in Dec. 2009 and then killing Palmer's 23-month-old daughter Hannah Grace Dowdie by setting her on fire while she sat strapped into a car seat, pleaded guilty this morning to two counts of capital murder, kidnapping and arson before Circuit Judge Chris Piazza. He was sentenced to life without parole on the murder charges, life on kidnaping and six years for arson, with 10 years added on for using a firearm in the crime.

According to an affidavit released by police at the time of his arrest, Robert Gatrell told relatives that he did it because Palmer owed him money. The Arkansas Times has previously written about the case.

Gatrell's cousin, Daniel Gatrell, who was 16 at the time of the murders, pleaded guilty last Thursday to a reduced charge of manslaughter in the killing of Michael Palmer and first degree murder (reduced from capital murder) in the killing Hannah Dowdie. He was sentenced to 10 years on the manslaughter charge and 40 on the murder charge, to be served concurrently. Piazza nol prossed the arson and kidnapping charges against him.

UPDATE: Appearing in the hallway after the sentencing, Michael Palmer's mother Sharon Pittman said that she was happy with the outcome, and thanked Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Johnson.

"I'm happy that we don't have to go through the two trials," Pittman said. "I hope nobody ever has to go through what we had to go through."

More on the jump...

Asked what he'd say to those who might complain that — given the brutality of the crime against a child so young — prosecutors should have went for the death penalty in the case instead of allowing a plea deal to go forward, John Johnson said that the outcome was what the family wanted.

"In all of our cases, we consult with the victim's family," Johnson said. "Homicide cases, in particular, are very personal to the family and our office considers their feelings. When we had this conversation with them, it was not as an advocate for one thing or another — and we never used the death penalty as a bargaining chip either — but we wanted to get them what would help them continue down the road to getting past this. That's not to say that there will never be a case where we won't follow a victim's family's wishes, but in this particular case, with the waving of his right to appeal and all the other things that go along with the guilty plea, plus the victim's family wanting to get past this part of it, that's how we arrived at this conclusion, with their wishes being the strongest factor."

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