York woman pleads guilty to killing attorney boyfriend

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comOctober 30, 2013 

The family of Michael Howe reacts after his girlfriend, Christina Adams, pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Howe's death. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

ROCKHILLHERALDONLINE

— Childhood abuse at the hands of her stepfather may have played a part in Christina Adams’ decision to fatally shoot boyfriend, York lawyer Michael Howe, two years ago, both a prosecutor and defense attorney said on Wednesday.

But Adams’ tendency to “put others before Christina,” her mother said, likely drove her to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in a York courtroom packed with family members of both the victim and the accused.

Circuit Court Judge Mark Hayes sentenced Adams, 29, to 30 years in prison, with credit for the 752 days she’s already served in jail. She was scheduled to go to trial Nov. 18.

On Oct. 10, 2011, Adams, then 27, called her friend, Daniel Martin, and told him that she had shot Howe, said Greg Voigt, the Charleston County solicitor who prosecuted Adams. When Martin went to the Smith Street home the couple shared, he found Howe alive. He rushed Adams’ 9-year-old daughter outside, while he went back inside and knocked on the door to a tiny bathroom with only enough room for a toilet. Howe, 44, said he was fine and would come out in a few minutes.

That’s when Adams walked past Martin with a .45 caliber pistol in hand, opened the bathroom door and fired at Howe 10 times, Voigt said. Five bullets hit him. Two of them were fatal.

Martin ran outside and drove himself and Adams’ daughter to the York police station to report the shooting, the prosecutor said. When officers arrived at the house, they found Adams outside, speaking with someone else she had called. The gun was found nearby.

Adams told police: “He hit me.” Police charged Adams with murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Since then, her case lingered as prosecutors and defense lawyers battled over procedural matters. Amy Raney, Adams’ lawyer, alleged the state failed to turn over all investigative materials. After a hearing this year, Voigt called those claims “balderdash” because defense lawyers requested materials irrelevant to the case.

He claimed the case was delayed because an expert in battered woman syndrome, retained by the defense, had been diagnosed with cancer. Raney denied that, saying the expert had already evaluated Adams and prepared a report concluding that, in her opinion, Adams suffered from battered woman syndrome. An expert for the prosecution never examined Adams, Raney said.

Wednesday morning, Howe’s relatives, some of whom traveled from Washington state, Florida and Virginia, crowded one side of the courtroom. On the other side, members of Adams’ family sat and waited; some of them sobbed.

Michael Howe “was loving ... he always thought of others,” his mother, Mary “Micky” Howe, said in court. “One thousand years wouldn’t be enough, but Michael would say, ‘Let’s do this.’”

After Adams’ sentencing, Patrick Young, Howe’s brother-in-law, said the family “accepted the plea” but “still prepared for the trial.” Though allegations of abuse were central to the defense, Young said the family maintains that Howe was a “loving” and “generous” person who took Adams and her daughter in, financially supporting them both.

He said the family would have liked to hear an apology from Adams, but believes Howe would have forgiven her: “The plea is what Michael would have wanted.”

Throughout the ordeal, Micky Howe has been a “model of grace,” said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, who recused himself from the case because Micky Howe worked in the York County Clerk of Court Office for years. York County judges recused themselves for similar reasons.

“She just doesn’t go to church on Sunday,” Brackett said. “She lives it Monday through Saturday.”

Years of abuse

Starting at age 2, Adams suffered from sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Raney said. That same stepfather abused her mother “all the time ... that’s all she knew.”

Adams became pregnant at 15. She dropped out of school during ninth grade and started working to support her daughter, whom she gave birth to at 16.

Her relationship with Howe was the “first serious romantic relationship she had,” said Raney, adding that Adams tried holding on to the relationship as it began to crumble.

During a bond hearing in June, Raney, now a Lancaster County public defender, argued that Adams was in a "desperate situation."

In court, Raney has said that Adams feared Howe, a gun enthusiast who kept firearms strapped to the headboard of their bed, and an expert in systema, a Russian martial art blending hand-to-hand combat with knife-fighting and firearms training.

Adams twice tried taking her life in October 2010. Police records show Adams once called police in 2009 after Howe allegedly punched her when she confronted him with research about steroids she believed he had been taken.

“We could have rebuffed any allegation that he ever abused anybody,” Voigt said Wednesday. “We don’t believe abuse ever happened.”

During plea negotiations, Adams relinquished the right to a hearing that would have given her the chance to prove her criminal domestic violence defense and receive parole eligibility after serving 25 percent of her sentence. But there was no guarantee a judge would have upheld Adams’ claims and grant her parole after a conviction. More, because she was facing a murder conviction, which carries life, she might not have been eligibile for parole at all, Raney said.

“I think she had a very difficult upbringing. By the time she was 17 years old, two men had gone to prison for abusing her. As a consequence ... I don’t think she ever had a healthy outlook on relationships,” Voigt said.

Raney, who called Adams one of the “sweetest” clients she’s met, agreed.

“When you’re growing up and the relationship between your parents” is volatile, “you think that’s normal,” Raney said. “It’s easy to judge when you haven’t been in that situation. I’m frankly amazed ... she’s such a survivor, truly. After all she’s been through ... I don’t know where she finds her strength.”

Prosecutors never established a clear motive for why Adams shot Howe.

“There had not been smooth sailing in the months before this. She may have seen that the relationship was going to end and not on her terms,” Voigt said, although he added that there were no indications Howe planned to end his relationship with Adams. “He kept his private life very private.”

Tests showed that neither Howe nor Adams had been using drugs or alcohol the night of the slaying, Voigt said. Adams has previous convictions for driving under the influence and unlawful possession of prescription medication.

“I don’t feel like it’s right,” said Teresa Stroupe, Adams’ mother, about the plea. “She’s an amazing person” who “puts others first.”

Pleading guilty, Stroupe said, was “a sacrifice” to spare others from the trauma of a trial.

Adams’ aunt, Crystal “Tutu” Adams, sobbed on Wednesday. In court, people heard only good about Howe and bad about her niece, she said.

Regardless of her charges, “she is a good person ... she wasn’t a bad person,” she said.

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