by Jim Reierson

Two teenagers have just been sentenced for setting a pet cat on fire, which caused it to suffer and led to its death. A local veterinarian put Max to sleep to end his suffering. He could not survive his serious injuries. This criminal case has received enormous public attention for good reason. Animal cruelty should concern everyone, especially when an increasing number of the perpetrators are young children and teenagers.

Levels of violence on television and in motion pictures are still too high. Children become desensitized to the violence, causing pain and suffering to mean nothing to them. Violent video games glorify killing. People who injure or kill animals for pleasure (not hunters who are licensed and generally feed their families with meat from the animals they kill) must be identified, charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. If convicted, they should then receive an appropriate sentence that will fairly punish them and send a strong message to others who might be inclined to engage in the same type of criminal activity.

Last year, as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Kootenai County, I filed criminal charges against a young man for poisoning his neighbors' pet cats. The evidence I reviewed, which included a full confession to the Post Falls Police, was of a premeditated crime that resulted in four pet cats (raised by children) being lured to his father's property to eat poisoned tuna fish. They suffered terribly before dying. The young man, who had been turned in to the police by a friend after he had bragged about the killings, was tried in court before a jury. He was found not guilty by a jury.

I accepted the jury's verdict. He had received a fair trial. However, what was not fair at all was an editorial that appeared in the Spokesman-Review on July 15, 2002. It was titled "Good Neighbors Keep Pets At Home." Neither the reporter who had covered the case (Angie Gaddy) nor the editor who wrote the editorial (D.F. Oliveria) made any attempt to contact me on key issues raised in the editorial. Not only were the facts not correct as printed, what was more egregious was the assertion that I had engaged in a criminal prosecution for personal reasons and wanted the defendant convicted of adult felony charges because I was "a deputy prosecutor who's a cat lover and notorious for being a publicity seeker." The editorial ended with "A prosecutor's office that pursues frivolous cases won't be taken seriously for long."

The reason I refer to this Spokesman-Review editorial is that it was widely perceived by many as an effort to minimize the importance of charging and prosecuting this type of vicious crime. Animal torture cases are not frivolous. In fact, within two months of this editorial being published, police in Post Falls and Coeur d' Alene received reports of 15 to 20 other pet cats disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Some were later found with pellet gun wounds. No suspects were identified.

The teenagers responsible for setting Max on fire were promptly arrested and charged as juveniles. They only faced a maximum of 30 days detention in a juvenile facility and 150 hours of community service. Two weeks ago, after they pled guilty and were sentenced, many people were surprised to learn just how lenient the penalties are for animal cruelty in Washington. Many people were incensed because the two teenagers did not serve more time in juvenile detention. (The initial judge on the case allowed both to serve most of a 30-day period at home under "house arrest.") Many more are outraged that the sentencing judge ordered the two to serve 50 of their 150 hours of community service in an animal control facility. They feel it is totally inappropriate to place helpless animals (who are either turned in by owners who don't want them anymore or are picked up as strays) at risk with these two teens who intentionally stole a pet from its owner's property and then tortured it by setting it on fire. These outraged citizens feel the judge should have used some common sense by ordering them not to have any contact with any animals during their brief year of probation. They liken the judge's order that they serve 50 hours of community service at an animal control facility to a convicted child molester being allowed to serve community service hours in a daycare facility.

Had these two teenagers committed this crime in Idaho, the penalties are a lot higher: up to 90 days' detention in a juvenile-detention facility, one year of supervised probation and, due to the heinous nature of this crime, most likely no deferred sentence. That means the crime would stay on the offender's record and could adversely impact future employment or military service. Further, under a "parent contract," the juvenile's parents can be fined or sanctioned if their child does not toe the line during the probationary period. The juvenile can be required to strive for "best results," like good grades in school, or else face juvenile detention.

I suggest that anyone who believes the penalties for animal cruelty crimes should be increased should promptly contact their state legislators and request that legislation be introduced in the next legislative session in Olympia.

Please keep in mind that one person can make a difference. This type of crime must be taken seriously. Abusers of cats, dogs or any other animal often become abusers of people.

Jim Reierson has been prosecuting criminal cases since 1982. A Spokane native and resident, he is currently a deputy prosecutor in Kootenai County.

Publication date: 09/18/03

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