A few weeks ago I had the unique opportunity, as an intern for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, to work on an animal cruelty case. Unfortunately, not unlike other counties, the assistant district attorneys (ADAs) and police officers who work in Westchester see their fair share of animal cruelty cases. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Westchester County (SPCA) is usually at the forefront of these cases. Still, it is unusual for an animal cruelty case to be taken out of local court and handled by the Westchester County ADAs or for it to actually go to trial. So, as a young law student with a passion for animal welfare, I was fortunate to be able to assist the Westchester County ADA on an animal cruelty case that was headed for trial.
The Facts. Briefly, here are some of the facts of the case. The Defendant was seen forcefully throwing a tiny Yorkshire Terrier puppy into the street. Multiple eyewitnesses saw the Defendant and its aftermath. Additionally, the Defendant’s heinous crime was captured in full view by a surveillance camera from a building across the street. Fortunately, thanks to the attention of the witnesses, the responding police officers, the SPCA and the Westchester Animal Hospital, the little puppy survived.
The Charge. Subsequently, the Defendant was charged with Animal Cruelty, under §353, Overdriving, torturing and injuring animals; failure to provide proper sustenance, of the New York Agricultural and Markets Law. Unlike §353-a, Aggravated Cruelty to Animals, which is a felony crime, committing the crime under §353 warrants guilt of a class A misdemeanor. While the punishment for a misdemeanor is capped at 12 months imprisonment, the ADA would not need to prove intent, increasing the likelihood of conviction.
The Case. With an avalanche of evidence against the Defendant, most people, including the ADA, the defense attorney, and even the judge would have expected the Defendant to take a plea. But after months of conferencing between the ADA and the defense attorney, the Defendant would still not take a plea. And so, we started prepping for trial; contacting the witnesses, gathering all of our evidence and constructing our theory of the case. Finally, now that the incident was over a year old, the case was ready for trial. I experienced two full days of conferences, preliminary hearings and even jury selection. As the evidence mounted and the jury was selected both sides wondered why the Defendant would still not take the plea, which was minimal: time served. But the Defendant had a right to a fair trial and that was what we were going to give him.
The Conviction. On the morning of opening statements the Defendant asked to watch the footage of the dog being thrown. Why, after months of preparation and being given multiple copies of the videotape, the Defendant had not watched it yet, I’ll really never know. So, after watching the footage of a man looking strikingly similar to the Defendant, which could be identified by our witnesses, throwing a puppy, which had belonged to the Defendant’s daughter, he took the plea. Why did the Defendant wait so long to take the plea? Well, it came out later that the Defendant felt as though he had gotten the short end of another deal in which he plead guilty. And so, even though this was a completely separate case, with completely separate facts, evidence and victim, the Defendant had refused to take the plea for so long in an effort to remedy what he felt was previously wrong. I had never heard of our legal system working in this fashion. This bizarre rationale for getting what the Defendant felt he deserved was far from my understanding of justice and a difficult one to figure out. Since at this point the Defendant had had us go so far into the preparation for this case, the ADA asked that the Defendant be sentenced with more than the original plea offer of time served.
The Sentencing. While I was pleased to see the Defendant plea guilty to the violent misdemeanor I was curious to see what else, in addition to time served, his penalty would be. Would he have to serve a month in jail? No. Perhaps a few months probation? No. To my surprise the judge sentenced the Defendant to community service. Alright, I thought that sentence was a bit light, but then again I am a strong proponent of potentially rehabilitative opportunities. But then, the judge’s next statement shocked me and probably everyone else in that courtroom: “Mandated at an Animal Shelter.” What!!! The judge was actually sentencing a convicted animal abuser to serve his sentence at an animal shelter! The ADA politely protested that provision of the sentence, but the judge stood firm. He stated, “I believe the Defendant can learn compassion.” Perhaps he can. Perhaps he can’t. But perhaps we don’t test those waters out with innocent lives. Ultimately, the Defendant was rearrested the very next day and will never be able to fulfill his mandatory volunteering at the animal shelter.
What I Learned. I am grateful to have worked on this case because I learned so much about the inner workings of an animal cruelty case. Of the many things that I learned I will take away three very important things.
1. The Witnesses made this case possible. This was a civilian-driven case. Ordinary people, like you and me, witnessed cruelty, made a point to actively stop the cruelty, attended to the victim, and after months of preparation took lots of time out of their busy lives by missing work and cancelling medical appointments to come to court and stand up against cruelty. Without them, this case, this victory would not have been possible and justice would not have been served. We owe everything to them.
2. The judge has great discretion. While most people, upon hearing the judge’s mandatory sentencing at an animal shelter, cringed and analogized it to having a child abuser volunteer at an elementary school, I still have great respect for the judge.
3. You never know what is inside the Defendant’s head. Not the ADA, the defense attorney, nor even the judge could figure out why the Defendant would want to go forward with such a case. Working in criminal law especially, you never quite know what kinds of weird and illogical rationales people come up with, but sometimes you just have to learn to deal with it.
To learn more about charging considerations and sentencing guidelines in animal cruelty cases visit the Animal Legal Defense Fund website.