A Baton Rouge woman accused of fatally poisoning her live-in boyfriend for life insurance money in 2015 won't face the death penalty if she's convicted of first-degree murder, prosecutors have decided.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office filed notice that it intends to pursue a life sentence in the case of 52-year-old Meshell Hale, who was indicted in 2018 in the death of Damian Skipper.

"After consulting with the victim's family, the State has decided to pursue a life sentence rather than the death penalty in this matter," prosecutor Dana Cummings wrote.

Hale's attorneys, who maintain her innocence, said Monday they are relieved by the development.

"Certainly it's a relief, but this case never fit a death penalty case," Joel Porter, one of her lawyers, said following a hearing in the case. John Russell also represents Hale.

Hale also is suspected in the 2016 death of her husband, Arthur Noflin Jr., but she hasn't been arrested in his death.

Hale doesn't have a trial date in the Skipper case, but when she does stand trial Cummings wants permission from the court to tell the jury about Noflin's suspicious death in New Orleans.

Skipper, 41, died June 30, 2015, of barium poisoning in Baton Rouge. Noflin, 42, was found dead March 18, 2016, inside his burned truck in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. His body was charred. It was found on the floorboard behind the first row of seats.

The cause of Skipper's death was determined only after his body was exhumed following Noflin's death. It was originally thought that Skipper died of a heart attack, and he was buried without an autopsy being performed.

During Monday's hearing on Cummings' request to introduce evidence of Noflin's death at Hale's trial in the killing of Skipper, a New Orleans police detective testified that Hale purchased barium acetate three times: twice in 2015 before Skipper died and once in 2016 before Noflin's death.

Sgt. Debra Normand said both men suffered the same symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea and weakness, before they died.

"When you look at their hospital records, they almost mirror each other," Normand testified inside state District Judge Richard Anderson's courtroom.

Hale's attorneys argue prosecutors can't prove she is the person who actually ordered and bought the barium acetate. Normand said Hale's debit card was used, and the poison was delivered to her home.

In July 2015, the month after Skipper died, Noflin's $750,000 life insurance policy was changed to make Hale the sole beneficiary, Normand said.

That life insurance payout has been put on hold by a judge until the criminal proceedings against Hale are completed.

Normand said she learned that Noflin was at Hale's Baton Rouge residence the day of his death, and that his truck passed a license plate reader on Interstate 10 East in LaPlace less than two hours before the vehicle was found.

A Jeep Patriot traveling two to three seconds behind Noflin's truck was rented by Nina Alexander, who was in a domestic relationship with Hale's daughter, Dominique Hale, Normand testified.

Investigators have been looking at Dominique Hale and Alexander in connection with the possible dumping of Noflin’s body and truck, court records indicate.

Normand testified Monday that no arrests have been made in Noflin's death because the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office doesn't know what caused his death, so they won't classify it as a homicide.

His death remains unclassified.

An autopsy showed that Noflin did not inhale any smoke, meaning he was dead before his body was burned.

Anderson did not issue a ruling following Monday's hearing. Both sides will submit additional written arguments in advance of a March 31 court date.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.