Wendy Howard shot her abusive ex-partner while defending herself and her daughters. Now the criminal legal system is only adding to the sexist violence she’s already experienced.
On October 21st, a Kern County jury found Wendy Howard not guilty of first and second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for shooting her abusive ex-partner Kelly Pitts in 2019. Despite a campaign by Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer to paint Howard as a violent woman, the prosecution failed to prove that Howard shot Pitts out of aggression and not self-defense. But while the jury found Howard not guilty of voluntary manslaughter on an imperfect self-defense theory, the jury hung on voluntary manslaughter charges on a heat of passion theory, with seven jurors voting guilty and five voting to acquit. Now, Howard awaits a December 2nd court date to see if the DA will refile charges. If they do, they will likely try Howard again or coerce her into a plea deal, continuing a period of traumatic uncertainty for both her and her family.
Howard, a Tehachapi, California mother and grandmother, has been fighting for her right to parent her children and live freely in her home since June of 2019. Before that, she survived years of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse by her then-partner, Kelly Pitts – a man whose abusive acts ranged from rape, strangulation, and beating her with a baseball bat while pregnant to the molestation of Howard’s minor daughters. When Howard’s daughter Miranda was sexually abused by Pitts at age 12 in 2006, she called the police. Howard also called the police when she learned that Pitts was abusing Bayley, their teenage daughter, in 2019. Both times, the police investigated the abuse claims and referred the evidence to Zimmer’s Office, who declined to prosecute Pitts for abusing Miranda and was allegedly investigating his abuse of Bayley. Pitts was never arrested for abusing Howard or her daughters.
Instead of prosecuting the sexual abuse of Howard’s children, Zimmer’s office decided to prosecute Howard for defending herself and her children from Pitts. Zimmer’s actions show that while rape, molestation, and violence against women within a family were tolerated by her office, self-defense with a firearm by a victim of that abuse is not. Zimmer charged Howard with first-degree murder, which (with a gun enhancement) carried a maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison. For Howard, who is 53 years old, that is essentially a death sentence.
The prosecution, led by Chief Deputy District Attorney Eric Smith, relied on sexist claims about Howard to make their case. They subpoenaed Howard’s text messages in the days after she found out that Bayley was being abused by Pitts. Then, during the trial, they cited Howard’s anger towards this abuse as proof of her intent to commit murder, despite a recorded police interrogation in which Howard clearly and consistently explained that Pitts attacked her and that she feared for her life when she shot him.
Howard’s trial shows how police and prosecutors play a critical role in perpetuating violence against women. That Zimmer – whose job is supposedly to protect victims of crime – took little interest in Pitts’s abuse towards Howard and her daughters but jumped at the chance to put Howard in prison after she defended herself shows what kind of violence is protected by the criminal legal system and what kinds are punished.
While self-defense is a universal right, the way that it’s often conceived of in courtrooms is based on an imagined scenario where a person (presumptively a white man) defends himself from a stranger who is attacking, robbing, or threatening to harm or kill him. But for women victims, violence is much more likely to come from an intimate partner or family member than from a stranger. Self-defense is rarely seen as a viable justification if their abuser is harmed or killed during a struggle.
Smith’s closing argument conceded that Pitts was an abusive, violent man, but blamed Howard for continuing to see him and to allow her daughter to have a relationship with him. While any woman who’s been in an abusive relationship knows that cutting ties with an abuser can be deadly while staying in loose contact can be strategic and life-preserving, the prosecution attempted to manipulate the jury by falsely portraying Howard as unafraid, bloodthirsty, and pathologically violent.
On October 1st, 2019, while Howard was in jail, Zimmer wore a purple suit in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness month at an event at the Family Justice Center, a resource hub for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. “Family and friends of victims will get together this month to remember and to honor their loved ones who were injured or killed by someone they used to love and used to trust,” Zimmer said.
But while Zimmer paid lip service to abuse victims at a media-friendly event, she continued to undermine Howard’s safety and that of her children, continuing the abuse that Pitts began, now with the weapons of state violence. Bayley and Miranda had to relive the details of their sexual abuse on the witness stand, compounding the trauma that they have already survived. By sending Howard to jail for 100 days in 2019 and threatening her with life in prison now, Zimmer is continuing the confinement, danger, and physical and emotional harm that characterized Howard’s life with Pitts, even after she left the relationship.
As Howard and her family await the December 2 court date, domestic violence advocates continue to call on Zimmer to drop the charges. “Unfortunately there are a lot of stories like Wendy’s where people are forced to defend their own lives and the lives of their families from an abuser. The system regularly fails to protect people like Wendy, and women’s prisons are full of criminalized survivors,” Stephanie Hammerwold, a member of California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said. “Our communities are not served by locking such people up.”
Howard’s supporters are heartened by the recent decision to halt the prosecution of Tracy McCarter, a criminalized mother and survivor in New York City, and hope that Zimmer follows suit. As Veronica Corona, a Batterers Intervention Specialist and Domestic Violence Support Advocate for Tehachapi-based Cornerstone Center for Counseling and Discipleship said, “Wendy should not be forced to go to prison, nor should she be coerced into signing a plea deal just so that the DA can celebrate a conviction. Survivors’ lives and Wendy’s life are worth so much more than a conviction statistic.”
Howard still owes a significant amount of money in legal fees, illustrating how the prosecution of survivors is a form of economic persecution. Her defense committee continues to fundraise to try to cover the costs. Zimmer can choose to follow the course of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and drop the remaining charge against Howard instead of continuing to escalate violence against Howard and her family. However, the fact that Howard’s case has gotten this far shows how the sexism of the criminal legal system, and prosecutors in particular, continues to obstruct women’s lives, separate families, and put survivors in danger.
Update: The date and location of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month event that Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer attended was corrected. It occurred on October 1st, 2019 at the Family Justice Center.
Raia Small is a writer and community organizer living in Oakland, CA. Her work has been recently published in Midnight Sun, Peste, and Kaleidoscoped. She is a member of the Wendy Howard Defense Committee. You can find her on Twitter @raiawrites.
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