Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pair acquitted in dog fighting case

Investigators say courts behind times when it comes to dog fighting
By Patrick McNamara, The Explorer


A Pima County Superior Court judge last week acquitted two people accused of dog fighting.

After nearly six days of testimony, Judge John Leonardo granted a defense motion to throw out charges that Emily Dennis and Mahlon Patrick knowingly sold pit bulls that were later used in illegal fights.

The pair had waived their right to a jury trial, instead choosing to have a judge weigh the facts in their case.

Dennis and Patrick, both 64, ran a kennel on West Orange Grove Road, where for decades they bred and sold pit bulls.

“That kennel had been there for about 30 years without any problems,” Dennis’s attorney Thomas Higgins said in an interview after the trial.

Higgins said the state’s evidence, much of which amounted to a collection of e-mails between the defendants and prospective buyers, could not connect Dennis and Patrick with dog fighting.

The pair entered the trial with an advantage because of the way the state’s dog fighting statute is written, according to Higgins.

The law forbids owning, training or keeping dogs for the purpose of fighting, but does not mention selling dogs to individuals who then use the animals in fighting exhibitions.

Under the law it is also a crime to be present at a dogfight.

“They have to show that beyond a reasonable doubt,” Higgins said. “That just didn’t happen.”

News of the judge’s decision disappointed Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Parish, who worked on the investigation and spent days at the Picture Rocks property collecting evidence.

“Dog fighting encompasses more than putting a dog in the pit (or fight ring)”, Parish said.

Because there have been few dog-fighting cases in the state, Parish said the legal system doesn’t have experience prosecuting people accused of the crime.

“Dog fighting has been under-prosecuted and under-enforced for years,” Parish said. “But now enforcement has been stepped up.”

He predicted that it would take more arrests of people involved with dog fighting for the legal system to catch up with enforcement.

In his prosecution of Dennis and Patrick, Deputy County Attorney Lewis Brandes attempted to link the pair to dog fighting based on the physical condition of many dogs taken from their west side home last February.

Veterinarians who testified on behalf of the prosecution said many dogs seized at the property had scarring, presumably indicative of wounds obtained in fights with other dogs.

But Higgins and Patrick’s attorney, Mark Resnick, were able to cast doubt on the doctors’ testimonies.

Resnick asked one veterinarian if it was possible to know whether a scar was the result of an organized dogfight or a normal confrontation between two dogs in a kennel or on the street.

The doctor said that could not be determined.

Resnick also asked if the injuries could have occurred from a dog climbing a fence, for example.

The doctor said that various things could have caused the scars. The origin of injuries would be difficult to determine once a wound heals.

“I really think that the whole prosecution was done in large part because of the Humane Society of the United States,” Higgins said.

The animal rights organization assisted the Pima County Sheriff’s Department with the search of the property and three others in a series of raids last February.

“That’s virtually unheard of,” Higgins said.

The high-profile dog-fighting case of football star Michael Vick fueled a public outcry against pit bulls, Higgins said.

“That case encouraged the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to push these things,” Higgins said. “We showed that they overreached.”

In the opening stages of the case, Brandes requested the judge not include against Dennis and Patrick 21 counts of animal cruelty. The state could decide to pursue those charges again in the future.

As for Dennis and Patrick, Higgins said the pair has not decided whether to seek damages against the state after more than 100 of their dogs were confiscated and later euthanized.

The pair lost more than $110,000 in potential earnings, Higgins said.

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