In a surprising turn of events, what was expected to be a weeklong trial ended abruptly when murder suspect Jason Howard suddenly accepted a deal in exchange for pleading guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2004 deaths of his mother and stepfather, Mildred and Jewel Cleveland, in their Gum Branch home.
Howard, 42, immediately was sentenced to 20 years for each count, to run concurrent, with credit for time served.
Howard originally was charged with six counts of murder; two counts of aggravated assault; two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of or attempt to commit certain felonies; one count of receipt, possession or transfer of a firearm by convicted felon or felony first offender; and two counts of concealing death of another.
Under the terms of the agreement, all other charges were nolle prosequi, meaning they will not be pursued.
Howard gained notoriety when his case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted” on more than one occasion.
On Tuesday morning, a jury of nine women and three men was selected. Additionally, one man and one woman were chosen as alternates. After the selection process concluded, Liberty Superior Court Judge D. Jay Stewart recessed the court for lunch, and the trial began after the break.
The trial began with Assistant District Attorney Greg McConnell and Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brandon Clark making their opening statements.
During his opening statement, McConnell said the state was prepared to introduce evidence that would prove Howard used a .22-caliber rifle with a homemade silencer to shoot Mildred Cleveland in the head three times and Jewel Cleveland twice around 10:55 a.m. April 1, 2004. He added the autopsy report would show that the couple had sustained several fractures around the time of their deaths.
McConnell also said his evidence would support the claim that Howard was unhappy in his role as a caregiver to the ailing Jewel Cleveland, whose health steadily had declined since he suffered a stroke in 2003.
Clark said the defense would show that the evidence was all circumstantial and would not be sufficient to convict beyond any reasonable doubt.
The state called its first witness, A.G. Wells.
Wells said he had known Mildred Cleveland since high school and recalled when she was married to Howard’s biological father, Morris Howard. He recounted how Jewel and Mildred Cleveland eventually became a couple and married after Mildred Cleveland’s divorce from Morris Howard.
Morris Howard went to live in Long County with his two sons and later married Shelby Howard.
Wells said he served as an estate and will attorney for the Howards and the Clevelands. He recalled that Morris Howard willed his .22-caliber rifle to Jason Howard upon his death. Wells said Mildred Cleveland took the weapon because, by then, Howard was a convicted felon, having served time in a North Carolina prison for robbing a bank in Richmond Hill in 1995. Howard was 25 years old at the time he committed the crime.
Wells told the jurors that when Howard was released, he wanted to go back and live with his father, but Shelby Howard wouldn’t have it. Mildred Cleveland accepted her son into her home in 1999.
Wanda June Parnell was the second witness to take the stand on behalf of the state. She testified that Mildred Cleveland was her son Jonathan’s first-grade teacher, and they established a very close relationship.
She said Mildred Cleveland was the reason she became a teacher’s assistant.
“We were very close. … We saw each other daily and we talked. She called me June Bug or Sug. … They were both very loving people,” she said.
Parnell said the Clevelands traveled together frequently with Jason and their beloved dog, Tina. The family frequently visited their vacation home near Blairsville in the North Georgia Mountains.
She said the Clevelands always sent her postcards and packages during their travels, letting her know where they had stopped and where they were going.
Parnell said she met Jason Howard only once but never saw his face. She said she was at the Clevelands’ home one day, and Mildred Cleveland took her to Howard’s bedroom to introduce them.
“I went down the hall with her and she took me to Jason’s room. … She loved her son. She was very protective of him … and she introduced me. … This person was lying back on the bed with his shirt over his head. I never saw his face. I got the feeling he did not want me there, but I went along with it because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He talked to us through his shirt acting like everything was normal. … He spoke back with the shirt over his head, and I just remember thinking, ‘Let’s just go,” but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
Mildred Cleveland last was seen March 30, 2004, at a doctor’s appointment. Jewel Cleveland last visited the West Rehabilitation Clinic on March 31. He set up a follow-up appointment for April 5, 2004, but never showed.
It was Parnell who received an anonymous letter May 5, 2004. The letter was postmarked May 3 from Macon but was dated April 1, 2004. She said as soon as she read the letter, she feared something was terribly wrong.
Parnell read excerpts from the letter to the jury as she cried.
“The house is now abandoned … Dog, plants and goldfish are still inside … Go there with local sheriffs, take inventory … and contact whoever you must … I took nothing of theirs with me. ... It’s exactly what it looks like,” she read.
“When you got this letter, how did you feel?” McConnell asked.
“I got very upset. I didn’t know what was going on. I called my husband,” Parnell said before her sobs prompted the judge to call for a recess.
The letter is what led authorities to look for the Clevelands. It first was treated as a missing persons case. Upon a second search of the house, however, they suspected foul play and issued a warrant for Howard’s arrest.
By then, he was nowhere to be found.
The Clevelands’ bodies were discovered June 14, 2004 with the use of cadaver dogs. They were buried in a shallow grave in a shed on the property.
Howard spent five years on the lam but was apprehended in Macon in March 2009 as he allegedly attempted to enter a vehicle. He has spent the past three years awaiting trial in the Liberty County jail.
Immediately after the break, the attorneys filed into the courtroom and announced they had agreed to a plea. Howard pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter.
“We had a very emotional witness, and I think she tugged at everybody’s heart and perhaps it tugged at his. I don’t know,” McConnell said after Howard entered his plea. “This is certainty. We consulted with the sheriff’s department, and the lead investigator and I think everybody was satisfied with this plea. … It’s virtually not appealable.”
Howard’s attorney declined to comment.