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Jury convicts Scott City man who confessed to murder; girlfriend's testimony corroborates confession
NEW MADRID, Mo. -- A Scott City man said his murder confession was a lie. A jury didn't buy it.
A jury of six men and six women Friday convicted Neil Howland Jr., 29, of first-degree murder, abandonment of a corpse, tampering with physical evidence, knowingly burning and two counts of animal abuse.
After deliberating nearly an hour and a half, the jury found Howland strangled his mother, Cynthia Canoy, with a braided dog leash Aug. 7, 2013 at her home in Scott City. The jury also found Howland placed her body and her two pet dogs into her SUV, drove the vehicle into a cornfield and burned it.
Three days after the killing, he confessed while being held in custody as a suspect at the Scott County Jail in Benton, Missouri.
But Howland's attorney, assistant public defender Amy Metzinger Commean, told the jury her client confessed to protect his girlfriend and their then-infant son.
Commean said Howland was being held in a small cell at the time he confessed. Previous testimony indicated he was wearing a paper gown because of concern he might be suicidal.
Commean told the jury, "He is alone. He is essentially naked."
She said Howland confessed after officers hinted his girlfriend, Tiffany Warner, might be charged with murder.
Commean suggested Warner had a motive to kill Canoy. The defense attorney said Cynthia Canoy and her husband, Jerry, had threatened to take custody of the child.
The defense contended Howland heard Warner and Cynthia Canoy arguing upstairs at the Canoy home. Commean said Howland heard a "thud on the stairs" and discovered his mother's body at the bottom of the stairs.
Commean said her client then made a "horrible decision" to help cover up the death.
"The truth is we don't know how Cindy died. We don't know if it was an accident," she told the jury.
Howland took the stand in his own defense.
In a quiet voice, he said he lied to criminal investigators because he did not want his son "to lose his mom," referring to Warner.
Under cross-examination, Howland said he didn't know the dogs were in his mother's car when he set it on fire.
On Thursday, during the first day of the trial, the jurors listened to an audio recording of the hourlong confession. Both sides said it was the key piece of evidence in the case.
After Howland testified Friday, special prosecutor Morley Swingle called Warner as a rebuttal witness.
A tearful Warner said Howland grabbed a dog leash and put it around his mother's neck.
"I hollered for him to stop," she testified.
Warner said she turned away from the scene and went downstairs.
"I didn't figure he would really do it," she told the jury.
Warner said Swingle promised not to charge her with tampering with evidence in the murder case if she testified truthfully.
Under cross-examination, Warner, who was dressed in an orange jail uniform and serving a prison sentence in connection with drug and forgery cases, said she first implicated Howland in a 2015 statement.
But in an April 2016 letter to Howland, which was shown to the jury, Warner wrote she lied in her statement because she was "scared."
She wrote to Howland that "no one will have my back like you."
In his closing argument, Swingle said Howland deliberated before strangling his mother.
"The defendant had a turbulent relationship with his mother," Swingle said.
Howland "made the choice" to kill his mother, the prosecutor said. "This was a deliberate murder."
Jerry Canoy, the husband of the victim, sat through the trial.
Fighting back tears after the verdict, he said the murder "has been very hard on me."
Canoy said his health has deteriorated, and he no longer is able to work as a truck driver.
"She will never come back," he said of his wife.
Canoy said he believes Howland and Warner are guilty of the crime.
Canoy said he hopes Howland is sentenced to life in prison.
The case was heard in New Madrid County on a change of venue from Scott County.
Judge Fred Copeland set sentencing for Jan. 19 in New Madrid.