Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When dogs attack, owners can go to prison

BRECKENRIDGE — Every year, 800,000 Americans are bitten by dogs; half of the victims are children.

Now, a new law in Texas is putting dog owners like Crystal Watson in prison.

"I'm scared," Watson said. "I've got three kids who are going to be without a mom to be there for them."

Watson was sentenced to seven years in prison; that's part of the reason she can't stop crying.

The main reason, she says, is she can't stop thinking about a little boy who used to play at her house with her kids.

Tanner Monk, 7, was mauled to death by four dogs owned by Crystal Watson and her fiance, Jack Smith.

The couple, now free on an appeals bond, are the first sent to prison under "Lillian's law," named for Lillian Stiles, who also was killed by a pack of dogs.

The legislation is an effort to reduce the incidence of maulings by locking up the owners.

"They were never agressive; never seen them agressive," Watson said. "Never bit no one."

That doesn't matter.

Watson and Smith's four four pit bulls savagely attacked Tanner Monk last May near his home outside Breckenridge.

By the time medics reached the little boy, there was nothing they could do for him. He was already dead.

The scene was so gruesome that even seasoned emergency responders broke down and cried.

"Oh, it was terrible," said Stephens County Deputy Caleb Hodges. "Something you can't even imagine unless you've seen the pictures."

Hodges said responding lawmen had to shoot two of the dogs to protect themselves; the other two were captured and euthanized.

Crystal Watson said she didn't think twice about how her dogs were kept. "We lived out in the country. Everyone's dog ran loose — not just ours," she said.

But under Lillian's law, if dogs get off their property and make an "unprovoked" attack, owners now face up to 20 years in prison.

Steve Bristow prosecuted the Tanner Monk case, and summed it up in four short sentences: "They had dogs. They didn't secure them. They caused a death. They went to prison."

But defense attorney John Young says Lillian's law is a bad law. "In this case, we are sending Jack and Crystal to prison for seven years because they failed to maintain a fence."

Young said the law does not define the word "provoke." Could the little boy have unknowingly provoked the attack by simply peeking at one dog's puppies?

No one knows, because no one saw how it started.

"So what the law does, essentially, is require jurors to get into the mind of a dog," Young said.

But Steve Bristow defended the legislation. "I think that's a good law," he said. "You need to be held responsible."

The prosecutor concedes that Lillian's law does have problems, including the fact that not enough dog owners are aware of the stiff penalties that could could encourage them to be more responsible about securing their pets.

No comments: