A Tehachapi woman who pleaded no contest under what’s called an Alford plea in the shooting death of her ex-partner was sentenced Thursday to one year of probation, plus time served, potentially ending a nearly four-year ordeal that brought domestic violence activists and national attention to Kern County.
Prosecutors had accused Wendy Howard, 54, of killing Kelly Pitts, 59, in an angry act of vigilantism after she was told he sexually assaulted her children. But defense attorney Tony Lidgett called the 2019 shooting self-defense in light of Pitts’ reported attempt to rape and beat Howard with a baseball bat when she was pregnant with Pitts’ child.
Jurors ultimately acquitted Howard of involuntary manslaughter and first- and second-degree murder but deadlocked on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. The latter was broken into two theories: that she shot in the heat of passion, or that hers was an act of imperfect self-defense. Howard was exonerated of voluntary manslaughter committed in imperfect self-defense.
Howard’s supporters rallied around her in hopes of persuading Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer to drop the first-degree murder charge. They said domestic violence survivors often are faced with a difficult choice when defending themselves from their abuser: They either die from physical abuse or land in prison with their freedoms stripped away.
Zimmer acknowledged the defendant’s and her children’s rights as victims. But after noting in a news release Thursday the jury did not unanimously accept the defense’s position that Howard shot in lawful self-defense, Zimmer emphasized Howard did not have a right to kill.
“Regardless of how wronged a person feels, or how abhorrent the conduct of another is, the law does not empower individuals to make themselves the judge, jury and executioner of those who are perceived to have wronged them,” Zimmer stated. “Kelly Pitts may have deserved to be imprisoned for his conduct, but he did not deserve to be killed.”
Lidgett said immediately after Thursday’s sentencing that Howard looks to appeal on the grounds she had been placed in double jeopardy. He acknowledged it’s a novel position to take, adding his client never saw herself as the aggressor.
“She’s done everything right,” he said. “She believes that she is the victim in this case.”
Facts of the case
Howard and Pitts separated more than a decade ago and have at least one child together, Bayley Frost.
Four people testified at trial about Pitts’ alleged inappropriate behavior toward them. Two witnesses were Miranda Frost, who is the eldest daughter of Howard, and Bayley Frost.
Pitts touched himself inappropriately around Miranda when she was about 12 years old, according to witness testimony. This case was investigated by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office but the Kern County DA’s office declined to prosecute.
Miranda heard Pitts inappropriately touched Bayley in 2019, and so the family called the Tehachapi Police Department, whose officers investigated.
Pitts, on June 5, 2019, asked if he could drop off his grandson at Howard’s Tehachapi home so the child and Howard’s young son could play together. Howard agreed.
As Pitts was driving over, Howard testified she learned of another alleged victim of Pitts’ sexual misconduct. She also said in court Pitts saw police at her house investigating Bayley’s allegations and kept calling her to ask what was going on.
Howard went outside to meet Pitts with a gun in her waistband. She testified it was never her intention to kill Pitts that day.
The shooting happened shortly after Howard confronted Pitts with evidence he molested Bayley. Pitts was still sitting atop the ATV on which he rode to Howard’s house, and she worried he would run her over.
It’s unclear what exactly happened because Howard couldn’t recall where she was standing in relation to Pitts. It’s unclear if Pitts’ ATV actually touched her foot, but Howard testified she shot him after getting scared what he would do to her.
For the charge of voluntary manslaughter, Howard last month entered an Alford plea, named for a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970. This plea is not different from a plea of no contest; the difference is that it allows a defendant to maintain some level of innocence while entering a guilty plea.
Lidgett said Howard can still appeal, despite her plea, because she would not have had to accept a deal if she had not been put in jeopardy by the prospect of a second trial.
“If the judge had granted her motion to deny (the DA’s office) from trying the case again for double jeopardy, ... she wouldn’t be in a position even to accept the plea,” he said.
An advocacy group called the Wendy Howard Defense Committee, in a news release Thursday, faulted the DA’s office for failing to take action against Pitts earlier, as well as criticizing aspects of her prosecution.
It called the trial a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources.
“The fact is that victims have the legal right to defend themselves and DA Zimmer failed to protect that right,” the release stated.
The total time Howard served in jail was about three months, said Judge Eric Bradshaw, who sentenced her Thursday.
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