Mistrial in case against twins accused of burning pit bull

After days of deliberations, jurors could not convince lone holdout

February 07, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The animal cruelty trial of twins Travers and Tremayne Johnson ended in a mistrial Monday after 11 jurors were unable to convince the single holdout that the brothers had set fire to the dog that came to be known as "Phoenix."

The Johnsons smiled faintly as the result was read about 6:30 p.m., after three full days of jury deliberation that followed a five-day trial. Their supporters high-fived each other quietly on one side of the gallery behind them; across the aisle, animal activists stared ahead, mostly stone-faced.

Whether the case will be retried is up to the Baltimore state's attorney's office, which couldn't comment Monday because a gag order is still in place.

Phoenix's 2009 death drew attention and outrage from hundreds of people, who donated thousands of dollars to find the dog's attackers. City officials created a new commission to combat animal abuse, and lawmakers have introduced bills this year to increase protections and criminal penalties.

"Phoenix was a catalyst for enormous change," Caroline Griffin, chair of the city's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, said outside the courtroom. "That is her legacy, she has become the face of animal cruelty."

The commission released a report last year showing inadequacies in the city's response to animal abuse incidents, accompanied by a list of inexpensive recommendations for improvement, mostly training. Among the challenges Baltimore faces, the panel said, is a lack of communication among agencies that members described as "simply staggering."

The Johnson trial seemed to underscore their concerns.

The first officer to arrive after the dog was set afire on May 27, 2009, put out the fire, but she never secured or documented the crime scene. No supervisor was called to the site to lead an investigation, and no crime lab pored over it, according to court testimony.

A week passed before police decided which investigative team would be assigned to follow up. No one identified a third suspect captured on video running from the fire. And officers failed to follow evidence-protection protocols when giving the Johnson brothers' clothing to a lab analyst.

"There can be no certainty… because the Baltimore City Police Department, the Baltimore government failed Phoenix on that day. They failed from the very first moment," Assistant Public Defender Karyn Meriweather, who represents Tremayne, said during her closing argument Thursday.

She and defense attorney Sharon May, who represented Travers, hammered away at the flaws in the investigation in an effort to raise doubts about the Johnsons' guilt.

Meanwhile, prosecutors Jennifer Rallo and Janet Hankin hung their case on three things: A 35-minute surveillance video that showed part of the day's events; a Baltimore police sergeant's interpretation of the video; and using logic to connect the dots for the jury in the circumstantial case.

But for one juror, it wasn't enough, according to interviews with other jurors.

The group started out roughly divided, two jurors said, but after a few hours of deliberating, they shifted from seven or eight guilty votes to 11.

"It was a very thorough examination of the facts; we filled in a lot of gaps," said Benjamin Riddleberger, juror No. 10. "It's difficult to get 12 people to agree on anything, and we had a [juror] who just dug in her heels."

Jurors watched the video repeatedly. It showed Phoenix trotting down Presbury Street around 11:47 a.m., then greeting a man, who picks up her leash and delivers her to two males standing on a street corner at 11:50. One minute later, the two males walk her toward the alley.

"We were really looking at the video," said juror No. 5, a man in his 20s who asked not to be identified by name. "Eleven out of 12 of us believed that beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the two defendants with the dog."

Just before the dog appears onscreen, engulfed in flames at 11:58 a.m., three people take off running from the direction of the alley. One takes a left, while two others race to the right. That pair was identified in court as the Johnsons by Baltimore Police Sgt. Jarron Jackson. He had worked in that area for years and said he knew the brothers well enough to recognize them.

Most of the jurors believed him.

"We thought Sgt. Jackson was very credible," juror No. 5 said. "We had only seen the defendants for five or six days and 11 of us were already convinced" it was them.

A close-up shot of Tremayne Johnson sealed it for many. It appeared to show him at the crime scene, deliberately walking toward it, sneaking a quick look, then turning around.

"It's a nonverbal admission of guilt that he knows what happened because he's already looking before he gets there," juror No. 5 said.

The dog, which was nicknamed Phoenix by rescue workers, was badly burned on over 95 percent of her body. Her corneas melted, her skin flaked away and the interior of her mouth was full of sores. She suffered for five days until her body gave out and she was euthanized.

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