(original story By BRANDON FORMBY Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org)
David Alex hasn’t approached his job the same since he prosecuted Deshawn Brown five years ago for killing a 10-month-old pit bull mix by stabbing her and setting her on fire.
If it weren’t for the Dallas County prosecutor, a Grapevine man convicted of killing his girlfriend’s dog last week would be facing sentencing on a misdemeanor-level offense. Instead, Alexander Good faces two years in state jail for what became a felony conviction.
Alex and a bevy of county officials, animal rights activists and legal advocates are now banding together to launch what is likely the first animal cruelty unit in a North Texas district attorney’s office. The move is part of a small but growing change in how the American justice system views, handles and prioritizes violent crimes against animals.
“When you address the animal abuse, you never know what you will have prevented in the future,” said Allie Phillips, director of the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse that opened last year.
Dallas County commissioners are expected to vote this month on creating two positions — a prosecutor and an investigator — that would make up the animal cruelty unit. Legal experts, animal advocates and law enforcement officials say animal abuse cases are complicated and full of nuances that require expertise and willingness to prosecute.
“It’s somewhat of a specialty, like child abuse,” said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.
He says he’s confident county commissioners will fund the unit after seeing what private donations can help accomplish.
The first year of operations of Dallas’ proposed unit may not cost taxpayers a dime. Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a nonprofit law enforcement support organization, has agreed to raise the $200,000 needed to fund the first year of the unit. County Commissioner Elba Garcia, who sits on the nonprofit’s board, linked Watkins and Alex up with the organization.
“We’re going to try and bring everybody together to prove this is an effort that needs to be a part of the future of Dallas County,” Garcia said.
Commissioner Maurine Dickey and her husband have already pledged $40,000 to the fundraising effort.
“People who abuse animals abuse other people, too,” Dickey said. “A lot of children who abuse animals are your future murderers.”
In most district attorney’s offices, cases that don’t align with specialized units are typically randomly assigned to prosecutors. After prosecuting the killer of Mercy, the pit bull mix, Alex and other prosecutors began paying as much attention as possible to animal abuse cases. But they’ve had to add those duties to existing caseloads.
“It may not get as much attention as it needs,” Alex said.
When police filed the animal cruelty case against Good, the man convicted last week of killing his girlfriend’s dog, the charge was a misdemeanor. Good was accused of kicking or using an unknown object to beat Jack. Good didn’t seek medical attention for Jack after he was hurt but instead left the dog lying under a bed, police records say.
Alex felt the evidence against Good showed the man tortured the Chihuahua-Jack Russell terrier mix. Under the state statute on animal cruelty, torture is a felony.
Although the charges were upgraded against Good, Alex said prosecutors don’t always have the time or focus to dig so deep into animal cruelty cases because they are focused on other areas of criminal law.
“That was the exception, not the rule,” Alex said.
The investigation of animal cruelty crimes by police and animal services officers are often complicated because there isn’t a victim who can file a report or give a statement about what happened.
That leaves investigators to piece together what occurred as best they can with what evidence they have.
“They don’t present themselves as easily as a burglary or a theft or a robbery,” said Dallas police Maj. Rob Sherwin with the property crimes division, which oversees animal cruelty cases.
Sherwin’s division earlier this year investigated the killing of a dog named Justice, who also died after being lit on fire. Police arrested four men, whom a grand jury indicted on felony animal cruelty charges.
Sherwin said investigators worked closely with the district attorney’s office on the case. He lauds the proposed animal cruelty unit.
“It will always help us to have someone to touch base with before we do a search warrant, before we talk to somebody, you know, bring them in for an interview,” he said.
Experts and advocates say that animal cruelty units embolden residents to report crimes against animals that often are ignored or fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system. The units can also empower law enforcement agencies to pay more attention to cases they often passed over due to stressed resources or because prosecutors focused more on crimes against people.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that doesn’t get prosecuted, trust me,” said Skip Trimble, legislative chairman for the Texas Humane Legislation Network.
Belinda Smith was prosecuting environmental crimes in Harris County in 2006 when she asked to also handle animal cruelty cases that came through that district attorney’s office. Smith was assigned the animal crimes cases during the second half of the year. The number of animal cruelty and dogfighting cases the office processed immediately almost doubled from 62 in 2005 to 113 in 2006. The county launched an official unit with Smith, an investigator and a part-time prosecutor in 2009. That year, the unit processed more than 300 animal cruelty and dogfighting cases.
“Violence is violence, whether it’s committed against a child or a person or an animal,” said Smith, chief of Harris County’s animal cruelty section. “It needs to be addressed.”
Dallas officials’ plan excites Phillips, director of the animal abuse prosecution center recently launched by the National District Attorneys Association. Phillips said there are about a dozen known district attorney’s offices in the country that have an animal abuse unit or specific prosecutors who handle such cases.
“It’s really been an evolution in the last decade,” she said.
Phillips said one of the most difficult parts of her job is getting prosecutors to see the value in prosecuting animal abuse cases because of links between animal and human violence.
“When you address the animal abuse, you can stop the cycle of violence,” Phillips said.
She and others said the creation of a unit in Dallas will probably generate a local sea change in how animal abuse is seen, not just within the criminal justice system, but also the community.
“There’s a need to make sure we do everything we can to send a message to the public that it’s important to us, that animal cruelty shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Sherwin, the Dallas police major.
For animal advocates, the unit is a major step that’s been years in the making.
“Slowly but surely, we’re bringing animal cruelty into a higher priority,” Trimble said.
IN THE KNOW
Safer Dallas Better Dallas is raising $200,000 to fund an animal cruelty unit in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. To give, visit saferdallas.com.
AT A GLANCE
The Dallas County district attorney’s office wants to create an animal cruelty unit that consists of a prosecutor and an investigator. Here’s a look at how other area offices process animal cruelty cases:
Tarrant County: Most cases that come through are misdemeanors and are randomly assigned to newer prosecutors. Those who get an animal cruelty case must involve a supervisor until they’ve seen a case all the way through to trial.
Collin County: Cases are assigned randomly to prosecutors.
Denton County: The county, at times, has had specific prosecutors who tackle animal cruelty cases. Currently, they are assigned at random.