A Comment on the Heidi Erickson Animal Neglect Sentence

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on January 21, 2011

Several criticisms were created by the sentence imposed by Plymouth County, Massachusetts District Court Judge Beverly Cannone in the Heidi Erickson animal neglect case. But let us first focus on the one huge positive aspect of this case: the possession ban. In hoarding cases, a court order banning a defendant from any contact with live animals such as Judge Cannone issued in this case is key. With recidivism rates exceeding 90%, the only real hope of preventing further suffering is to aggressively enforce this condition of probation. With Ms. Erickson reportedly setting up shop in Kentucky, the Animal Legal Defense Fund gladly offers its support to the Plymouth County District Attorney’s office in aggressively enforcing Judge Cannone’s order by assisting with any and all efforts necessary to extradite Ms. Erickson back to Massachusetts should she violate this most important condition of probation.

Having said that, the sentence’s disappointments are noteworthy. In a state that has some of the best anti-animal cruelty laws in the nation (and serves as home to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, or HARC), for a trial judge to decide (at least in part) to impose a lesser jail term for a repeat offender by relying on a defense plea for leniency predicated on watered down laws that are on the books in other states is a very strained bit of legal reasoning. The Legislative and Executive branches of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have enacted constitutionally valid laws protecting animals, many of which call for stiffer penalties than may be common in other states.  For a state trial court judge to rely on weaker laws extracted from other states to justify a lesser sentence in a Massachusetts case can readily be viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to justify a specious proportionality argument that borders on an express violation of the separation of powers. In my view, it was a substantial mistake for Judge Cannone to rely on lesser laws from other states to justify going soft (i.e., a net of 17 days in jail) in a repeat offender case where the Massachusetts Legislature enacted (and the Governor approved) a much tougher sentencing scheme. This error is only amplified by the Court’s apparent failure to acknowledge Ms. Erickson’s conduct in Kentucky while this case was pending in Massachusetts.

Another criticism comes in light of the prosecution’s failure to give witnesses and victims (yes, the executive director of non-profit that cared for the neglected cats–Linda Brackett of Nemasket Orphaned Animal Haven or NOAH–is a “victim” as that term is defined in M.G.L. chap. 258B § 1) notice of the Court’s decision to move the sentencing hearing to an earlier date. Not only is this an affront to Massachusetts’ crime victim bill of rights (M.G.L. chap. 258B § 3(b), it only fuels suspicions that the “fix was in” and that the Court did not want citizens who were clearly concerned and closely following this case to appear or participate at sentencing.

As to Ms. Erickson having reportedly stated her intent to appeal a very generous sentence — to that idle threat, we respectfully say, “Yes, please do appeal your sentence Ms. Erickson.” We would welcome a second opportunity for the trial judge to address your conduct in open court with ample advance notice given to the people who cared for the surviving victim animals.

Regardless of the outcome of any appeal, in light of the generous sentence imposed, Ms. Erickson has a limited down side for any non-compliance with the terms of her probation. Consequently, and quite sadly, the odds are high that we will be seeing Ms. Erickson again very, very soon.

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