Howard accepts plea deal for 1 year of probation, time served
A murder case already filled with a rare instance took another unusual twist Friday when a Tehachapi woman acquitted of murder but still facing a voluntary manslaughter charge after a jury deadlocked on it accepted a deal by invoking a rare plea.
Wendy Howard, 53, paused when asked by a judge if she wanted to move forward with entering an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Kelly Pitts, her ex-partner. Clearly emotional, Howard agreed to plead no contest to the charge and get sentenced to time she’s already served in jail and one year of felony probation.
“She absolutely feels coerced into a plea deal,” said Courtney Morris, an organizer with the Wendy Howard defense committee, a grassroots organization filled with advocates from around the nation that rallied around Howard.
A gag order barring attorneys from speaking and imposed on this case wasn’t addressed in court Friday. Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Chief Trial Deputy Eric Smith — who prosecuted this case — didn’t respond to a request for comment.
An Alford plea — stemming from the court case North Carolina v. Alford — doesn’t have a material difference on the sentence a person faces compared to pleading no contest, according to local defense attorneys.
But it allows a defendant to maintain innocence, while still accepting what prosecutors alleged. Pleading no contest means a person is not admitting guilt or innocence.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled for May 4.
“She got less time than somebody who would steal a car,” said Bakersfield-based defense attorney Mark Raimondo, who was not involved in Howard’s case.
Howard claimed she killed Pitts in self-defense when confronting him over sexually abusing their daughter, and testified how Pitts physically and sexually abused her too. Jurors acquitted her of involuntary manslaughter, and first- and second-degree murder, but deadlocked on voluntary manslaughter during a trial last year.
In an unusual step, jurors considered voluntary manslaughter under two different theories: this charge done in the heat of passion or imperfect self-defense. Howard was exonerated of voluntary manslaughter committed in imperfect self-defense.
A mistrial was declared after seven people thought she was guilty of voluntary manslaughter done in the heat of passion while five thought she was innocent of this charge. Her defense attorney, Tony Lidgett, sought to have voluntary manslaughter dismissed, but a judge denied his motion.
Prosecutors cut her a deal Wednesday, and Howard accepted it Friday. She was joined by her young children, husband and domestic violence supporters who’ve helped to raise awareness about her case.
Morris, the advocate working to bring attention to Howard’s plea, noted the 53-year-old mother and grandmother didn’t want to retraumatize her family by having them testify about Pitts’ sexual abuse against them.