Monday, July 19, 2010

Man not guilty of animal cruelty

By Scott Daugherty, Hometown Annapolis

A Lothian man who chained up five stray dogs on his south county property last year only to see one die and four others become sick and emaciated has been acquitted on 10 counts of animal cruelty.
While the not guilty verdicts stemmed from a two-day jury trial last week in county Circuit Court, Michael Torney, 45, of 5671 Southern Maryland Blvd., owes his freedom to Judge Michele D. Jaklitsch - not the jury.
After hearing more than six hours of testimony about the dogs and the condition an Animal Control officer found them in January 2009, Jaklitsch granted a defense motion and dismissed the state's case on Wednesday. She said there was no proof Torney didn't feed the animals, since the dogs were infested with parasites and the worms could have made them look underfed.
"(The) veterinarian testified that she couldn't within a reasonable degree of medical certainty determine the cause of why the dogs were malnourished," the judge said, according to a court recording.
Jaklitsch's decision overturned a verdict handed down last December in Annapolis District Court.
A judge convicted Torney in December on five counts of animal cruelty. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail with all but 10 days suspended. While he already had served the 10 days, he appealed the guilty verdict, leading to this week's trial.
Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Palan, Torney's attorney, said Thursday she did not think the state should have pursued the charges against her client.
"I think it was clear he was trying to help these animals," she said.
Kristin Fleckenstein, a spokeswoman for the State's Attorney's Office, argued prosecutors had "sufficient evidence not only to charge (Torney), but also to take him to trial."
"We take animal cruelty seriously," she said. "We are disappointed with the verdict."
The case stems from a Jan. 13, 2009, call to animal control about two malnourished dogs chained to a tobacco barn near Torney's house. When Officer Glenn Johnson went to investigate, he found six dogs chained to the building and one pit bull - named Chillin - running free.
One of the dogs chained to the barn was dead and the other six animals looked sick, Johnson said.
Torney told Johnson last year he and his brother owned only two of the dogs - the two that were in the best condition. He said the other five animals, including the one that died, were strays.
Torney was charged with animal cruelty only in connection with the five strays.
At trial, prosecutors argued Torney chained the five dogs and then neglected their care. Assistant State's Attorney Laura Caspar said Torney did not feed them enough "quality" food nor provide them veterinary care.
"The moment he confined these dogs, he became responsible for their health and safety and their welfare," she told the jury, according to a court recording.
Palan countered her client tied up the dogs out of "kindness and concern." She said he feared they would run into the woods and get shot by hunters.
"He saw that they were in danger and he did everything he was capable of doing to try to protect them and help them," she told the jury, noting that he provided the dogs food and blankets, tied them up on long leads and made sure they were far enough apart they could not get tangled up or fight.

Asked for help

She added that her client only tied them up because his previous "efforts to get them help from county agencies failed," referencing in passing her client's past complaints that the county's Animal Control and the state's Department of Natural Resources turned a blind eye to his requests for help.
"It wasn't my duty to protect these dogs. It was the duty of DNR and Animal Control," Torney told The Capital in May.
Officials with the county Police Department - which oversees Animal Control - and the state Natural Resources Police denied any responsibility for the dog's death since Torney could have driven the dogs to Animal Control in Millersville, but they could not refute his claims that he repeatedly called their departments for help.
In the end, Torney's guilt or innocence didn't hinge on whether he sought help for the dogs.
Jaklitsch noted that Johnson only visited the house on the one occasion when he found the dead dog. She said the jury could not build an opinion based on that "snapshot," particularly since some of the dog's bowls were full of food and frozen water.
She added that the state's law is vague concerning the requirement of a dog's "owner" to get his animal veterinary care.
She recalled how Torney didn't view the dogs as his own, but rather as strays he was helping.
"While he did tie them up for a period of time, it does beg the question as to whether or not he had charge or custody," she said.
Four of the dogs seized from Torney's property were released to the SPCA in Annapolis and subsequently adopted. Animal Control released another dog to Torney's brother.
Torney's pit bull, Chillin, was treated at Animal Control for a year, until Torney was convicted in Annapolis District Court and ordered to relinquish custody of the animal. Chillin was subsequently released to the SPCA, where he was put down for being too aggressive.
sdaugherty@capitalgazette.com

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