Dec 27, 2005
Dogs convinced me of need for judicial reform
Politics, adversarial system make justice difficult to achieve
ANNETTE DUNLAP
Special to the Observer

My civic innocence ended at 12:15 a.m. on June 9, 2005. That is when two sheriff's deputies came to the door to arrest my husband for killing two dogs that had killed seven of our nine hens. We did not see the dogs attack our chickens, because we had been at the hospital since early morning, June 8, with our son, who was having surgery. But we know the dogs had been on our property, because they emerged from the trees at our property line as we drove back from the hospital that afternoon.

My husband found the dead hens when he stepped outside to feed them and our other animals. The scene was sickening. The pen's protective wire was pulled apart.

The dead hens were bloodied, mangled and scattered in and around what had once been their shelter. Just the day before, I had watched them with pleasure as I fed them. They were colorful and full-feathered, and laying well. We had more than enough eggs for our family's needs, and we had started providing fresh eggs to friends.

My husband asked our neighbor across the street, who usually spends the day outside, if he had heard anything. "Oh, yes," the neighbor told him. "Those two dogs that are hanging around here were in your yard around lunchtime, and I heard the worst noise when they were going after your chickens. But I didn't go over there myself, because I was afraid the dogs would attack me." My husband was raised on a farm, where he learned that protecting one's livestock and property was given precedence over stray dogs. When he could not locate the dogs' owners, he did what farmers do.

Court of public opinion

The dogs' owners came through the neighborhood looking for their dogs around 6 p.m., on June 8. They called the sheriff's department when they learned what had happened. The deputy who responded to the call told my husband she was "investigating a rumor about two dogs being killed." My husband felt he had nothing to hide. Three hours later, he was arrested and charged with two felonies: grand larceny for the theft of the animals and cruelty to animals.North Carolina law gives permission to a livestock owner to kill predators who threaten, or have killed, their livestock. The law says the owner must see the animal in the act. In most cases in the state where the owner did not actually see the predator attack, but could reasonably demonstrate that the animal had destroyed the livestock, the person is not prosecuted.

But we did not reckon on the court of public opinion.

The complainants called a television station that broadcast the story in every one of its newscasts over a 24-hour cycle. A local newspaper printed information from the police report and from the dogs' owners. The reporter never contacted us. Animal rights' advocates pressured the assistant DA handling the case for a conviction.

Through this experience, I learned firsthand what my lower-income, high school Civics class students tried to tell me when we got to the section in the course about the judicial system: The real world is vastly different from the textbook version.

It's not `Law and Order'

I have an undergraduate degree in government. I have run for public office, and I have worked for various political candidates since the age of 13. In my constitutional law course, we studied the case of Miranda v. Arizona, but my husband was never read his rights. When he pointed this out, he was told, "This is not `Law and Order.' " I asked the arresting officer if he had interviewed our neighbor across the street. "We don't have to do that," the deputy informed me. "That can come out in your husband's trial."

But there never was a trial. In the prevailing environment, where "animals (dogs, not chickens) are people, too," my husband's only viable option was to agree to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

The emotional issues aside, the more troubling aspect of my husband's case is that it is not a fluke. The theory behind our adversarial judicial system is that the truth will emerge from an airing of both sides' evidence in a court of law. That ideal does not take into account political pressure and cultural legal practices. As a result, people are put to death for crimes they did not commit, and others have criminal records when they did nothing wrong. Advocates for reform are becoming increasingly vocal in their call for a review of our judicial practices.

We need to heed them. Nothing less than people's lives, and livelihoods, are at stake.