Maiming Two Huskies as well as the 6th Amendment?Posted by Geoff Fleck, ALDF Attorney on February 6, 2012
In May 2008, Christopher Comins shot two Siberian husky dogs that had come onto an Orange County, Florida property where Comins happened to be walking. Reportedly claiming that the dogs were harassing a calf, Comins shot both of the dogs multiple times–nine shots altogether, continuing to shoot after the dogs were already wounded and down–while ignoring the pleas of their owner who was in close pursuit after their escape from his control. Christopher Butler, who had raised Riley and Hoochie from pups, said he came upon the cow pasture and watched as Riley came toward him wounded. Butler is reported to have said, "I said, ‘Just stop shooting.’ "He (the shooter) turned around and shot the other dog again." While both dogs eventually recovered from the shooting, one of them lost an eye. The incident was witnessed by several horrified passersby and videotaped by at least one.
In January 2011, the state of Florida proceeded to trial on criminal animal cruelty charges. Comins was charged with two counts of felony animal cruelty. The dogs’ owner cried on the stand while describing what it was like to see his dogs being shot. But before the case could get to the jury, the judge granted a judgment of acquittal. Thus, in a surprising turn of events, the Orange County jury never got the chance to deliberate the animal cruelty charges filed against Comins. Instead, minutes after the State rested its case, the judge ruled on a defense motion to dismiss the charges.
"I don’t believe the state has met its burden and I’m granting a judgment of acquittal. This case is dismissed," Judge LeBlanc said. The acquittal means that the trial is over and Comins has been cleared of the crime. The government is not permitted to appeal or try again. Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U.S. 141 (1962); Sanabria v. United States, 437 U.S. 54 (1978). The jury never was given the chance to render its verdict. One has to ask, "Why?"
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed …
The idea, which has controlled American jurisprudence for over two hundred years, is that a jury of peers, selected from the community in which the alleged crime occurred, is best suited to decide the issue of an accused’s guilt or innocence. Moreover, in Florida, where Comins was tried, the prosecution has the right to a jury trial as well. (Rule 3.260 provides that an accused can only waive his or her right to a jury trial with the consent of the State.)
Florida law does give a judge the power to grant a motion for judgment of acquittal if "…the court is of the opinion that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction." (Rule 3.380) This does not, however, give the courts unbridled discretion. Typically, a judge orders a directed verdict after finding that no reasonable jury could reach a decision to the contrary.
"[T]he decision to grant or deny a motion for judgment of acquittal is not one which calls for the exercise of judicial discretion. If the evidence is legally sufficient to support the elements of the alleged crime, the trial court has no discretion to acquit the defendant…" Jones v. State, 790 So.2d 1194, 1196-97 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001)(en banc).
"A defendant, in moving for a judgment of acquittal, admits not only the facts stated in the evidence adduced, but also admits every conclusion favorable to the adverse party that a jury might fairly and reasonably infer from the evidence. The courts should not grant a motion for judgment of acquittal unless the evidence is such that no view which the jury may lawfully take of it favorable to the opposite party can be sustained under the law. Where there is room for a difference of opinion between reasonable men as to the proof or facts from which an ultimate fact is sought to be established, or where there is room for such differences as to the inferences which might be drawn from conceded facts, the Court should submit the case to the jury for their finding, as it is their conclusion, in such cases, that should prevail and not primarily the views of the judge." State v. Brockman, 827 So.2d 299, 302-303 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002) [Emphasis added].
Every crime has "elements" that the State must prove. Florida’s felony cruelty to animals statute, Section 828.28.12(2) requires proof of one element:
"To prove the crime of felony Animal Cruelty, the State must prove the following element beyond a reasonable doubt:
The defendant intentionally committed an act to an animal which resulted in the excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal or the animal’s cruel death."
A judge has the right to decide after hearing the prosecution’s case that it has failed to prove the necessary elements and dismiss the case. Such relief is rarely granted, but in this case, it is reported that the Court felt that there was not enough evidence to show malicious intent on the part of Comins. "This was not someone who was torturing an animal," the judge was quoted as saying. The Court is also reported to have said that he had heard no evidence that the act of shooting the dogs was committed in a cruel manner.
What’s wrong here? First, "malicious intent" is not an element of the crimes charged. All the State has to prove is the intent to commit an act. It clearly did so when it proved beyond all doubt that Comins shot Hoochie and Riley nine times with a firearm. Second, the commission of the act "in a cruel manner" is not an element of the crimes charged either. What the State has to prove is that the act resulted in the excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal or the animal’s cruel death. Third, even if "malicious intent" and "cruel manner" were elements of the crimes charged, they by their very nature present questions of fact for a jury to resolve, not issues of fact for a judge to determine. Fourth, while Comins’ attorneys maintained the defendant was protecting cattle, that is an affirmative, not absolute, defense that only a jury can weigh.
Needless to say, the dogs’ owner, Chris Butler, was stunned by the Court’s ruling. So is this writer.