Twin brothers will be retried in dog-burning case

New trial date is set for May 4

February 11, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors said Friday that they will retry the animal-cruelty case against brothers Travers and Tremayne Johnson, who were accused of fatally setting fire to a pit bull in 2009, after the first trial ended Monday in a hung jury.

The new trial is scheduled for May 4.

"The Court's order prohibiting public comment about the case remains in effect. We will respect the Court's order and look forward to the retrial," Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said in a statement.

The brothers' father, Charles Johnson, expressed disgust when told of the decision. Prosecutors "just want them to be guilty," he said. "With all the publicity, how can they have a fair trial?"

The case drew national attention and outrage from animal welfare advocates shocked by the brutality of the attack May 27, 2009, in West Baltimore. The female dog, later nicknamed Phoenix by rescue workers, was doused in accelerant, set alight and left to burn to death. A Baltimore police officer found her and put out the flames, but Phoenix didn't survive. She was euthanized five days later.

Thousands of dollars in reward donations were pledged to find her killers, identified by police from a blurry surveillance video as Travers and Tremayne Johnson, then 17. The brothers were charged in the crime.

But after a multi-day day trial and a lengthy deliberation period, jurors were split last week, voting 11-1 in favor of conviction. The final note they sent to the judge said a consensus was impossible.

"It was one of those situations where [one juror] wasn't willing to infer anything," Benjamin Riddleberger, juror No. 10, said in an interview after the trial.

The prosecution's case was largely circumstantial, relying on the video and a police sergeant's interpretation of it. While most jurors found the officer's testimony credible, according to interviews, one woman believed there was reasonable doubt, leading to a mistrial.

In a telephone interview Friday, juror No. 5, who asked that his name not be used, had a mixed reaction to news of the new trial.

"I'm glad they're retrying it, but at the same time it's a shame that our panel of jurors didn't get the job done," he said, "because it's like double the resources that the state has to pay for it."

Members of the city's commission on animal abuse, created after Phoenix was killed, called the decision to retry the case "great news."

"We're very gratified that the state's attorney's office has elected to [re]try the case," said commission Chairwoman Caroline Griffin. "I think the message it sends is that we as city will no longer tolerate these crimes and that we will do our utmost to hold abusers accountable."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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