Prosecutors discussing whether to retry dog-burning case

Announcement coming soon

February 09, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore prosecutors are holding a series of meetings to determine whether to retry the animal cruelty case against twin brothers Travers and Tremayne Johnson, which ended in mistrial Monday, and expect to announce a decision soon, Deputy State's Attorney Elizabeth Embry said Wednesday.

If the case is retried, it won't be immediate, however.

The assistant state's attorneys who prosecuted the Johnsons — Jennifer Rallo and Janet Hankin — "clearly need a breather," Embry told members of the Mayor's anti-animal abuse commission and task force at their monthly gathering Wednesday. A May 4 date has been set aside at the city courthouse in case prosecutors decide to retry the case.

The fatal burning of a female pit bull in 2009 captured the nation's attention and led to mass outrage from animal welfare advocates, who followed the recent five-day trial closely. Jurors deliberated for more than 20 hours over three days, but couldn't agree on a verdict. One juror wasn't convinced of the brothers' guilt in the attack, leading to a mistrial.

It was the longest animal-cruelty trial ever held in the city, according to Ann Gearhart, of the Snyder Foundation for Animals, which provided meeting space for the group. And it took a lot out of the participants, particularly the prosecutors.

"It was evident to everyone" in the courtroom "how much they cared about the case," said Lt. Samuel Cogen, from the Baltimore Sheriff's Office.

The group began the two-hour meeting Wednesday discussing the mistrial and the possible lessons to be learned from it. But a judge-issued gag order in the case prevents prosecutors and police from discussing future plans, leading to frustration from some at the meeting who want to know the next steps.

"I just think the silence is deafening," said Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA, which put out a statement expressing disappointment in the mistrial earlier in the week. Gabbey's comments prompted Embry to speak.

"We want to be very deliberative [in our decision-making] and are having a series of meetings to discuss the case," Embry said, noting the gag order. "As soon as the decision is made, which will be shortly … we'll be making an announcement."

In the meantime, what happens to the nearly $28,000 in reward money gathered for the case is up in the air. The cash will roll over into another animal fund if the case isn't retried. And if it is, the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office will determine whether the reward is paid out and to whom upon a conviction.

Randall Lockwood, a senior vice president overseeing forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects with the national ASPCA, said he wasn't surprised by the hung jury.

"At the outset of this, I said I would not be surprised if we had a hung jury in this trial," he told commission and task force members. "All it takes is one person who just doesn't get it, [who] is unwilling to send a juvenile [to jail] for whatever reason."

The Johnson brothers, 19, faced a maximum of three years in prison if convicted of setting fire to the pit bull, who was nicknamed Phoenix by rescue workers. The dog was euthanized.

Lockwood compared the case to a similar trial in Atlanta, where two teen-aged brothers bound a dog and put it in a community center oven. That case ended in mistrial as well, though prosecutors quickly announced plans to retry it. The brothers eventually pleaded guilty.

Anti-animal abuse advisory commission and task force members plan to study the trial and alleged flaws in the dog-burning investigation, as identified by a defense attorney who listed 41 problems with the case for jurors.

"The defense really helped us out," Cogen said. "They laid it all out in detail."

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