The Need to Open Dialogues and EducatePosted by Geoff Fleck, ALDF Attorney on August 22, 2011
As a prosecutor for the past 15 years specializing in animal cruelty cases, I’ve come to realize that education, i.e., raising sensitivity, is key to making progress in the fight for animal rights. I figure if I can dispel some of the rampant misconceptions about animals or help teach the six people on my jury and the audience in the courtroom to be a little more aware of the suffering of animals, proper animal care, and the atrocities that animals suffer, I can accomplish something whether I win the case or not. Lately, my experiences suggest that judges, in particular, could use some consciousness raising if for no other reason than they possess extraordinary power, not only over the results of cruelty prosecutions, but the education of everybody in the courtroom.
In the last few months, I’ve had judges in criminal cruelty and fighting cases refer to a case as "The Woof-Woof" case, ask at a restitution hearing, "Why should a defendant convicted of animal fighting be responsible for reimbursing rescuers the costs of rehabilitating rescued dogs?", strike a juror sua sponte on his own because she revealed she was a member of the ASPCA, and comment, "This is just a dog case – what’s the big deal?"
Isn’t something wrong here? Isn’t the one characteristic essential to a fair trial a judge who at least keeps his or her personal prejudices to him or her self at a trial and more importantly makes every effort to not let those personal prejudices influence judge’s rulings?
Being mindful of rules governing ex parte contact, I now make it a point to chat informally with judges when they’re off the bench about the legislative policy issues underlying the animal cruelty code. Invariably, these conversations include a discussion about the indisputable link between cruelty to animals, child and spousal abuse, and human violence in general. I gently remind them that even their most casual comment could sway a jury and undermine the chance of a fair trial. Maybe if more of us took the time to simply communicate one-on-one, we could accomplish that education which is so vital to progress in the animal rights arena.