Lesbian couple plead guilty to avoid death penalty in starvation deaths

[Editor’s Note: The following story contains disturbing details about child abuse.]

A lesbian couple from Lycoming County, Echo L. Butler, 27, and Marie Snyder, 33, have avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to extensive charges including first-degree murder for the torture starvation deaths of Snyder’s two daughters, Nicole Elizabeth, 6, and Jasmine Jean Snyder, 4. Snyder’s third child, a son, was not starved.

On January 20 in Lycoming County Court, Butler pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to commit first degree murder of her girlfriend’s two young daughters. Snyder had previously pleaded guilty. The guilty pleas allow both women to appeal their sentences without threat of the death penalty being imposed. 

In a packed courtroom Friday, Lycoming County Judge Nancy L. Butts detailed the gruesome facts of the case based on the breadth of evidence. Butts asked Butler if, between Jan 1, 2015, and Nov 6, 2021, she had intentionally conspired with Snyder to kill the girls and if she refused them food. Intentional murder in Pennsylvania is described as “willful, deliberate and premeditated.”

“Two precious souls were never provided a chance at life,” said Lycoming County District Attorney Ryan Gardner, as he held a framed picture of the girls, which he said was “frozen in time” at the ages they had died.

Gardner said, “Two children subject to repeated intentional starvation and torture that results in their deaths is a tragedy of epic proportions. It’s tragic for the surviving family members and it’s tragic for the community in general.”

Prosecutors and police officers have described the case as “the worst that they have seen.” The Daily Mail tabloid newspaper even headlined their January 21 story: “Evil lesbian is jailed for life after she DELIBERATELY helped starve girlfriend’s children, aged six and four, to death after plotting to cause maximum suffering.” 

According to a police affidavit in Lycoming County District Court, Butler and Snyder “subjected Nicole and Jasmine to heinous and unparalleled torture on a daily basis for years,” eventually causing the girls’ deaths in 2016 and 2017. Snyder’s third child, a boy, was allegedly given pizza and ice cream while the girls were fed a “spoonful of peas and two sips of water,” according to documents. 

“The conditions, unfortunately, these two beautiful little girls were subjected to prior to their deaths, is some of the worst [abuse] that I have ever seen by far,” said Gardner. “In speaking with law enforcement, hands down, it is the worst that they have seen as well in their storied 30-plus year careers.”

Prosecutors had announced they would pursue the death penalty against Snyder and Butler when the two were arraigned on charges of criminal homicide, among others, but that plan was dropped after Echo Butler decided to plead guilty January 20.

Gardner said, “Prior to their death[s], [the victims] lived in and were subjected to conditions beyond comprehension.”

Now that both women have pleaded guilty to all charges, they will serve life sentences for each child’s death, but can appeal their sentences immediately.

The remains of the two children were found in shallow graves Nov. 5 and 6, 2021, behind the Willamsport home of Ronald and Michele Butler, Echo’s parents. Michele Butler has been charged with third-degree murder in the case and served time already. She also is accused of concealing the death and giving false information to a Children and Youth caseworker.

The details of the girls’ deaths were reiterated by the judge at the January 20 proceeding. At the time of her death, Nicole had been given no food or water for about two weeks prior to her death. The child weighed only 10 pounds, was pale, not verbal and her hair was falling out when she died about May 10, 2016, according to testimony by Snyder. Nicole was no longer able to stand.

Snyder said the night of Nicole’s death, Echo got Nicole from her bed, put her in a hot bath, hit the girl’s head on the tub and then put her on the floor, where she died. Snyder said she called 911, but that Echo and Michele Butler made her end the call. A 911 dispatcher called back, but they were told the call was an error. The three women put Nicole’s body in a shed. Then Echo dug a grave and put Nicole’s body in it. Michele Butler put moth balls over the body to contain any odor.

Jasmine died about Aug. 11, 2017, after several weeks of no food or water, Snyder said. She weighed only 5 pounds and her bones were visible, Snyder said. Snyder admitted to also giving the girls cold baths, because according to Echo Butler, the two “did not deserve hot water.”

According to Michele Butler, both girls were allegedly forced to wear soiled diapers, stand in corners for hours at a time and would also be physically restrained for hours at a time, Jasmine in a car seat and Nicole tied to a chair. Jasmine’s legs were crossed for maximum torture, according to Snyder. 

After the death of Nicole, on Aug. 26, 2016, Snyder wrote another letter to Echo Butler: “I started to correct them and it went very wrong. I lost one of my babies.”

Snyder pleaded guilty Oct. 31 to two counts of first-degree murder, for which she will be sentenced to consecutive life sentences, her attorney, chief public defender Nicole Spring, said. Snyder also pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. 

Snyder is also charged with theft by deception and fraudulently obtaining food stamps and cash assistance as Snyder continued to collect public assistance for the two girls for years after their deaths. Those benefits totaled nearly $70,000 in public assistance. Snyder’s attorney said the children’s mother is accused of illegally obtaining $48,703 in medical assistance and $21,163 in supplemental nutrition assistant program (SNAP) benefits after her daughters were dead.

When she was arrested, Snyder blamed her girlfriend, Echo, for the crimes. She said the starvation plan was Butler’s and that Butler “never liked” her daughters. “I’m sorry about these fucking bitches,” Snyder allegedly wrote in a Dec. 2015 letter to Butler. “If you want them gone, they’re gone.” 

Butler allegedly said she hated the children “because the girls were bad” while Snyder said she wished she only had her son.

In January 2017, Snyder allegedly wrote to Butler, “I know you don’t like Jasmine and never liked Nicole.”

Snyder reportedly told investigators that Butler had choked Nicole one time “until her eyes rolled back in her head” and that Butler frequently hit both her daughters in the head and face with a closed fist. Snyder also said that if either child defecated in their diapers, Butler would smear feces on their faces.

Court documents indicate Snyder knew what the couple was doing was wrong, but that she did not seek medical help for either of her children throughout the starvation process. Snyder said Butler gave her children little or nothing to eat over about a year before their deaths. Butler’s parents are charged with knowing the starvation was taking place but doing nothing to intervene and for lying to child protective services.

Echo Butler was charged with for four counts of criminal homicide, two counts of endangering the welfare of children, two counts of unlawful restraint, two counts of concealing the death of a child, two counts of simple assault, two counts of recklessly endangering another person, two counts of abuse of a corpse, one count of obstruction of child abuse cases and two counts of tampering with evidence. 

Snyder’s son was placed with child protective services and was reportedly unharmed.

“What you took from us can’t be put into words,” said Giselle Blank, the girls’ great-great-aunt, cried in court during the Friday proceeding, saying a sentence of life in prison is mild compared with “what you made my nieces suffer.”

In Pennsylvania, a life sentence does not allow possibility of parole. Now that both women have pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, Snyder and Butler are now free to appeal their life sentences.  

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