Burned Alive: A Case for Mandatory Minimum Sentences in Animal Cruelty Cases

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on October 3, 2011

On a daily basis my colleagues and I at ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program see the worst of mankind’s interactions with animals. It is necessary to get a bit thick-skinned dealing with the daily carnage–if for no other reason than to maintain one’s professional judgment and objectivity. However, the “dog/cat burned alive” cases still really get to me. You don’t have to look very far to find them. Just go to Pet-Abuse.com and enter “dog burned alive” and run the search–you’ll get eight pages of results. Or, if you prefer, have a look in Lexis. See, e.g., Childs v. State, 2000 Tex. App. LEXIS 7510; State v. Rodriguez, 2000 Kan. LEXIS 613; Brown v. State, 2009 Tex. App. LEXIS 2936; State v. Collier, 1998 N.J. Super. LEXIS 485; Anderton v. State, 1980 Ala. Crim. App. LEXIS 1287; Commonwealth v. Epifania, 2011 Mass. App. LEXIS 1102.

In just such a case (involving a dog), my good friends in Detroit (Wayne County–Amy and Raj) prosecuted two defendants – Kristian D. Jackson (Case No. 10-012065-01) and Decarlos L. Young (Case No. 10-012065-02). The act was captured on a cell phone camera video. These two twisted and violent souls opted to use fire after they were unsuccessful in killing the dog by strangulation/hanging.

According to media reports
, the defendants tried to spin this incident as a misguided attempt at flea control (based on statements on the video), but one could easily conclude that this dog was being culled as a “cur” for not being a willing fighter.
Their sentences? Thirteen months to 8 years for Jackson, and 24 months to 8 years for Young (who was on probation for child abuse at the time, and who also picked up drug charge a month after the dog burning incident). The sad news here is that 24 months prison (or even 13 months prison) is relatively good when one looks to other states for comparison. In Oregon, for example, our felony sentencing guidelines are so weak that a defendant who intentionally sets a cat or a dog on fire is legally precluded from going to prison–a short term in jail yes, but not prison. (Yes, we’ve tried twice in the last two legislative sessions to fix this, but it seems that the members of the Oregon Legislature feel that the we just can’t afford to put these types of violent offenders in prison.)

Back to Jackson and Young. Our faithful readers will recall that the duration of incarceration ordered in court (the gross sentence) is misleading – it is the net amount of time served by a defendant that is the relevant measure. I can assure you that the eight-year cap was an absolute fiction. In fact, a quick look through the Michigan Department of Corrections’ database reveals projected release dates of November 5, 2011 for Jackson, and September 29, 2012 for Young. Recall that the sentencing hearings were held on December 16, 2010. Thirteen months in Jackson’s case nets out to less than 10 months, and 24 months in Young’s case nets out to 22 months. These reductions are credit for the time served prior to sentencing. The good news is that in Michigan there are no early release vehicles such as “credit for good behavior.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Michigan can be considered one of the “tough on crime states” due to its repeal of the “good behavior” credit, 10 months in prison for an offender with no priors or even 22 months in prison for an offender who was already on probation for child abuse seems incredibly light. I have watched the video and listened to this dog cry as he burns to death. If you watched it and found this dog’s death as heart wrenchingly nauseating as I do, then perhaps you’d agree that at least an eight year net prison term should be the minimum sentence rather than the maximum sentence… Perhaps even longer?

I find it ironic that, though almost never imposed in non-homicide cases, our justice system has no problem requiring that a cap be placed on the theoretical maximum possible prison sentence for felony animal cruelty. However, while our justice system readily embraces setting a maximum penalty for aggravated forms of animal cruelty, there are no mandatory minimum sentences. This needs to change. But will it? Legal proponents of mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenses are often met with substantial resistance from lobbyists working to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws – while these groups are by and large motivated by the outcomes in drug cases, their efforts can (and do) create a bias against mandatory minimum sentencing proposals in general, even for violent crimes.

What you can do help establish mandatory minimum sentences in aggravated forms of animal abuse? Educate yourself and then act–here are some approaches:

  • Go to your local courthouse and watch a few sentencing hearings–you’ll be shocked at what you see.
  • Chat with police officers and prosecutors about how they feel the justice system is working.
  • Attend a local budget hearing and learn just how much money your local police department or sheriff’s office has to work with. 
  • Above all else, write to your state legislators and urge them to sponsor and support a bill requiring mandatory minimum sentences in all cases of aggravated animal abuse, including cases where animals are intentionally burned alive. It’s not a silver bullet–it doesn’t cover every possible outrageous act of cruelty, but it’s good a start and sets a strong precedent for further action.