Dog burning trial drew strong reactions

Cases are important because cruelty is linked to other crimes

February 19, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

From an Annapolis hearing room to a Baltimore courtroom, animal cruelty has captured the attention of Marylanders in recent weeks — and has sparked debate over the issue's importance.

Even as Baltimore prosecutors were locked in a lengthy trial over a fatal attack on a pit bull terrier, some critics complained that murders don't get as much media attention as the dog that was set ablaze. And a family friend of the brothers charged in that case questioned the legal system's priorities in prosecuting teens for an attack on an animal when her murdered son's killer hasn't yet been caught.

But psychologists, criminologists and officials say there's a broader reason to pursue animal cruelty cases: Animal abusers commit other crimes.

Dogfighters run in gangs and deal drugs. Serial killers practice on wildlife. Wife beaters target family pets. And sometimes troubled, anti-social teens set fire to cats and dogs, said Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and author who oversees forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA.

"One of the things that links [animal cruelty] to interpersonal crimes like domestic violence and elder abuse is they often share a common thread of being about power and control," Lockwood said. "If we want to address violence, we have to address it in all its forms."

Animal-cruelty awareness has been on the rise since NFL star Michael Vick was convicted in 2007 of running a dogfighting ring in which the losing dogs were electrocuted. But most police officers at the patrol level still aren't trained to recognize it, according to an ASPCA study released in December.

Understanding that, activists in Maryland have turned the brutalized pit bull — dubbed Phoenix — into inspiration.

Their outcry has prompted the creation of a Baltimore anti-animal-abuse commission, fresh training for law enforcement and a new animal-abuse crime classification and data collection efforts within the Baltimore Police Department. The city school system has also given teachers access to an anti-cruelty lesson plan.

On Thursday, advocates urged state lawmakers to double the penalties for animal cruelty convictions. The legislation was inspired by the shooting last year of Bear-Bear, a Siberian husky, in a Severn dog park. Other animal welfare bills are also being considered this legislative session, including a bill that would allow judges to prohibit convicted animal abusers from owning animals.

However, actual progress will likely be slow in coming in many of the city's initiatives. Budget restrictions and basic bureaucracy have already hampered some of the efforts. A promotional bookmark hasn't been distributed, for example, because some fear it will lead to more reports of cruelty and overwhelm already overworked officers.

Charles Johnson, father of the two teens accused of setting Phoenix on fire, is disturbed by the focus on his boys, Travers and Tremayne. The young men are scheduled to be retried in May, after a jury split 11-to-1 in favor of conviction, and the elder Johnson worries they won't get a fair trial with all the attention.

"They're taking more pride in the dog than they is in the humans," he said.

The twins, now 19, have already been convicted in the minds of many animal activists, who claim their criminal records are typical of abusers.

The brothers, who say they're innocent in the dog's death, have juvenile convictions for firearms violations. And they were later charged — alongside their father — with illegal gun and drug possession as part of the dog-burning investigation, though those cases were dropped.

Travers Johnson is also being held without bail on attempted-murder charges, and prosecutors have claimed in court papers that the brothers have gang ties.

Their case "very closely parallels" an Atlanta case, said Lockwood, who declined to talk about the Johnsons specifically because a judge-issued gag order prevents him from commenting. Lockwood, who's on the city animal abuse commission, will likely be called as an expert witness during the sentencing phase if the Johnsons are convicted.

In the Georgia case, 17-year-old brothers trashed a community center and burned a dog to death in its oven, Lockwood said. They then brought younger children in to view the carcass and threatened violence if anyone told. The teens' trial also ended in a hung jury, but they pleaded guilty before a new trial could occur.

"What came out at sentencing," Lockwood said, "was a prior history of multiple offenses."

A Massachusetts study from the late 1990s showed that animal abusers are five times more likely to commit other violent crimes. And a 2001 animal-cruelty report from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention claims fire-setting in particular is indicative of "a host of adolescent-onset anti-social behaviors, including gang-related activities."

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