Four years and two months after setting husband George House on fire in their trailer’s living room, Arbie Jo Buckley has pleaded guilty to the crime.
Buckley, 42, pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter at the Panola County Courthouse in Batesville Wednesday morning, February 23.
A jury pool would have reported Monday for the scheduled trial.
Circuit Judge Andrew C. Baker, who presided over the hearing, told Buckley the manslaughter plea brings a maximum 20 years in state prison.
A sentencing hearing for Buckley will be Monday morning at 8:30 at the county courthouse in Sardis.
Regarding the plea agreement, District Attorney John Champion of Hernando said he conferred with House’s family members about the plea agreement, explaining to them that a jury could have found Buckley guilty of manslaughter.
"The family wanted to get this thing over with, and we wanted to try to do what was right," Champion told The Panolian.
Champion has now prosecuted Buckley’s case twice, first in 2002 and again this summer when a grand jury indicted Buckley in July.
A Panola County jury convicted Buckley in 2002, but that conviction was reversed by the state Supreme Court.
Buckley’s plea brings to a close a long-running case that began on October 27, 2001 when she went to the Panola County Sheriff’s Department and demanded that deputies remove George House from their home.
Court documents report deputies refused to help, saying they had no legal right to do so, and about two hours later – according to Champion – the trailer at 4817 Old Panola Road was engulfed in flames.
House later died at The Med in Memphis, succumbing to second and third degree burns.
Buckley maintained her innocence throughout the investigation, saying she had arrived at the home to find the trailer ablaze and her husband asleep.
Court documents also note Buckley claimed House had been cooking a hamburger while drunk, catching the trailer on fire at the stove.
"Every time he get drunk he go to cooking," Buckley said, according to a sheriff’s department transcript.
In an interview with Chief Deputy Craig Sheley, Buckley admitted buying a gallon of kerosene at Bull Market in Batesville. During the trailer fire, she said, George House spilled the flammable liquid on himself, thinking it was water.
The 2002 jury found Buckley guilty of capital murder, meaning she committed a felony – arson – while committing murder.
On appeal, however, the state Supreme Court agreed that Buckley should have faced only one charge – murder – in Circuit Court and not a charge of arson.
The attorney who appealed Buckley’s case is Leon Johnson of Grenada, who was present with his client Wednesday morning.
Asked by Baker to describe any credible evidence against his client, Johnson cited Buckley’s letter writing as possibly incriminating evidence.
Buckley’s court file – now two volumes thick – includes letters written from prison, including a 2004 letter to Circuit Judge Ann Lamar.
In that letter, Buckley wrote that it’s "not my fault" if House could not "stop, drop and roll" when he was on fire.
Buckley has been treated numerous times for mental illness at the Miss. State Hospital in Whitfield, Baker noted in court, explaining that her mental health was key to the court hearing.
"I understand you’re on medication," Baker told the defendant.
"No," she replied, telling Baker moments later, "I’m completely cured."