Prosecuting Animal Cruelty Cases is Not (That) Hard

Posted by Geoff Fleck, ALDF attorney on September 10, 2012

(Photo by Spaydey09)

Every day it seems, somebody tells me how difficult it is to prosecute animal cruelty cases. I hear so many excuses and, frankly, I’m tired of them. "The law is no good," "The judge won’t like it," Juries won’t convict," "I don’t have enough evidence," The victim can’t testify," "I don’t have an eyewitness," "I don’t have a video," "I have ‘real’ cases to prosecute," "Even if I win, nothing will happen to the defendant." The excuses for failing to prosecute are endless. I’m sick of it. It’s baloney. It’s time somebody set the record straight and cut the crap.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, popular belief, and prevailing myth, prosecuting felony animal cruelty cases is not hard. It’s certainly no more difficult than prosecuting most any other case, and it’s a lot easier than many. It’s not rocket science. It lacks the intricacies of RICO1, CCE2, or child cyber porn.3 Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s not even a "who-done-it?" In fact, cruelty cases offer several distinct prosecutorial advantages:

1. The victims are particularly vulnerable and defenseless and are, therefore, sympathetic. Lots of times they’re actually very cute.

2. The victims are usually (a lot) smaller than the abuser and are never armed.

3. The victims don’t recant their accusations (like some domestic violence victims have been known to do, calling the day before trial to say they’ve kissed and made up and will no longer cooperate), and they always show up on time for their doctor’s appointments.

4. The victims don’t have their own agendas.

5. The victims are blameless4 and will never be impeached.

Juries throughout the country are instructed that the State has to prove two things–a crime was committed, and the defendant did it. How hard is that? You’ve got an animal with a bullet or knife wound. You’ve got a horse that is 300 pounds underweight because he hasn’t been fed decent hay. You’ve got a dog that is dying of heartworms and hasn’t ever been taken to a vet. You have a cat so dehydrated she’s near death. You have a puppy gradually losing his mind tied to a tree on a 6′ logging chain and wearing a 6" deep circle into the ground. You have a hoarder with hundreds of filthy, sick, and dead animals in little wire cages with little food, insufficient shelter, and no water. In addition, you have an owner or a person responsible for the care of the animal. What more could a prosecutor ask for? Most animal cruelty trials, in my experience, take no more than a day or two to try. There is seldom a burdensome amount of physical evidence, and there is usually a manageable number of witnesses.

In many states felony animal cruelty requires proof of only one, yes one, element. In Florida–where I prosecuted for almost 15 years–it is that "the defendant intentionally committed an act to an animal which resulted in the excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering to the animal or the animal’s cruel death."5 You don’t even have to prove that the defendant intended to cause the pain or death, only that he intended the act. And, the act can be one of omission like failing to provide shelter, food, water, or veterinary care.6 Sure, some felony statutes aren’t that good7–file at least a misdemeanor instead. I know–your investigating agency isn’t helping much. Deal with it. Is that so uncommon in any of your other cases? Get your in-house investigators on the case. Bug the hell out of anybody who won’t return your calls. Be a squeaky wheel.

Sure, you need some of that annoying stuff called "evidence." You’ve automatically got the complaining witness, you’ve got the animal control officer(s) or law enforcement officer(s) who responded, you’ve got a veterinarian and, of course, you’ve got an abused animal. Tell your investigating officer to have a chat with the accused as soon as possible–you’ll likely get a valuable plethora of both admissions and refutable lies. Make sure a lot of photographs are taken–get them printed in gruesome 8"x10" color and prepare to blow them up on the courtroom wall 8 feet high and 10 feet across. If your jury isn’t crying when they see in HD Technicolor spread across the wall an emaciated and bloodied three-month-old Fido tied to a tree with a twenty-pound logging chain, you’re in the wrong courtroom.

If you need tax records to show who owned the property where the animal was found, make a call to your local tax assessor. A subpoena duces tecum can be your best friend if a polite request doesn’t suffice. If you need a necropsy, ask your vet for help. If you need a warrant, sit down with your affiant and draft one. If you need forensics, don’t be intimidated–you don’t have to be an expert on DNA to present a winning DNA case–you just have to know the right questions to ask. What’s the best way to prepare them? Ask your expert for a list of the right questions, and she’ll carry the ball from there. If you need to refute the defendant’s excuse that he wasn’t near the scene, call Verizon and get his cell phone "ping records." Have your investigator talk to neighbors. You can get as sophisticated as you want but–and the point is–you don’t have to. Don’t let yourself get paralyzed because you can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes the most effective presentation is the most straightforward. In other words, don’t hesitate to K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid).

You don’t ever have to reinvent the wheel. Twenty minutes on the phone in the beginning will set all the necessary steps in motion. Ask questions. Ask for help. Contact ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program.8

You’re going to be pleasantly surprised. Judges are going to respect your dedication to the prosecution of violent crimes. Juries will vindicate your efforts by their consistent guilty verdicts (and, in my experience, big smiles and "thank yous" as they leave the courtroom). Animal control and shelter workers will love you. You will educate everyone who even hears about your case on the horrors of animal abuse. The media will pick up on the fact that animal cruelty is a grave and violent crime that is being taken seriously. You will receive unsolicited letters of praise from like-minded citizens. You will inspire other prosecutors to follow your lead. You will even, if you care about such things, up your conviction stats. And, most important, you’ll feel really good about what you’ve done.

Geoffrey C. Fleck – ALDF contract attorney and former prosecutor for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida

1 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization; 18 U.S.C. § 1961-1968

2 Continuing Criminal Enterprise; 21 U.S.C. § 848

3 The Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998

4 ALDF – "We May Be the Only Lawyers on Earth Whose Clients Are All Innocent."

5 Fla. Statute § 828.12(2); JI 29.13

6 Fla. Statute § 828.02

7 See, ALDF’s ranking of state animal protection laws

8 ALDF offers a host of services to prosecutors from investigative help to model voir dire questions, to helping place seized animals.

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