BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Wendy Howard, the Tehachapi woman who stood trial for the killing of her ex-boyfriend Kelly Rees Pitts, was in court once again Friday to face a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Howard entered an Alford plea and is expected to be sentenced to time service and one year probation.
Entering the plea, however, left Howard in tears.
"In order to protect her family as the loving mother and grandmother that she is, she chose to enter an Alford plea, which again, is maintaining innocence, in order to move on from this nightmare," explained the Wendy Howard Defense Committee Organizer Courtney Morris.
Howard entered her plea, through pauses and hesitations, to a charge for voluntary manslaughter in the death of her ex-boyfriend Kelly Rees Pitts back in 2019.
In October 2022, after a two-week long trial, a jury found Howard not guilty on five charges: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, voluntary self-defense, and involuntary manslaughter. The October jury remained split on a sixth charge, voluntary manslaughter in the heat of passion. On Friday, a judge denied Howard's motion to dismiss this charge.
"We are disappointed that the motion to dismiss was denied and that the Kern County DA refused to drop the last remaining charge of voluntary manslaughter, a charge which has questionable legal legitimacy at best, given the unprecedented outcome of this trial," said Morris.
Howard claims that in 2019, she found out that Pitts had molested her two daughters. The question throughout the trial was if Howard killed Pitts out of self-defense.
Morris says she believes domestic violence survivors will now feel less incentivized to speak up.
"Wendy did everything right. She reported the abuse charges, both domestic violence and sexual abuse charges that the children had, to the police," said Morris. "They failed to put a predator in prison, which they admitted in closing arguments that he belonged in prison."
While Howard left the courthouse in tears, she still had support outside.
"Wendy," said Morris, "you are not your plea deal, and your plea does not define you." She added that after the upcoming sentencing, she thinks Howard will be able to start moving forward.
"I think that then she can begin to heal with her family, when they don't have to worry about constantly going to court. When they don't have to worry about her emotions constantly being weaponized against her," said Morris.
There is still a gag order in force on this case, but Howard is set for sentencing on May 4. 23ABC will be there to bring you the latest details as soon as they become available.
IN-DEPTH: WHAT IS AN ALFORD PLEA?
The type of plea deal Wendy Howard agreed to is different from a standard plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The Alford plea allows Howard to maintain her innocence, but still results in a conviction.
Defense attorney Kyle Humphrey explains why a defendant might accept such a plea.
"The concept is that sometimes the person who maintain their innocence is offered such a good plea bargain under the circumstances they want to take it, but they don't want to say 'I'm guilty,'" said Humphrey.
Court procedures require that a defendant enter a plea of some type for the case to proceed.
"That's typically what has to happen for knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of rights," said Humphrey. "And an Alford plea, you're saying, 'Hey, I'm maintaining my innocence, but I understand that this is a good plea bargain and I'm going to take it.' So it allows you to preserve your position that 'I'm innocent.'"
That's typically what has to happen for knowing voluntary and intelligent waiver of rights. And an Alford plea. You're saying, Hey, I'm maintaining my innocence. But I understand that this is a good plea bargain and I'm going to take it so it allows you to preserve your position that I'm innocent."
According to Cornell Law, the Alford plea also allows a defendant to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that if the evidence at hand were to be presented against them at trial, the prosecution would likely secure a conviction against them.
Humphrey says one benefit of the Alford plea to defendants is that it presents less of a long-term risk to employment prospects and other future opportunities for the defendant.
"What does this do if you're applying for a professional license? It would give you the ability to not have the door shut in your face automatically," said Humphrey. "Some criminal convictions end your ability to do certain careers or jobs or clearances. On this, you're not actually saying that you did it, so the conviction may not be the final say in future opportunities."