Teens accused of setting fire to pit bull to be retried

First attempt to convict Johnson twins ended in mistrial

  • Her kidneys failing, veterinarians euthanized the extensively burned year-old dog known as Phoenix.
Her kidneys failing, veterinarians euthanized the extensively… (Photo provided )
May 03, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

Prosecutors will take a second try Wednesdayat convincing a Baltimore jury that twin brothers set fire to a pit bull in 2009, after a first prosecution ended in a mistrial in February.

Travers and Tremayne Johnson were 17 when they were accused of burning a female pit bull, later nicknamed Phoenix, so badly on May 27, 2009, that the dog had to be euthanized. The case revived attention on animal abuse in Baltimore and provoked outrage from animal-welfare advocates. In its wake, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake established an Anti-Animal Abuse Taskforce.

"This case has galvanized an otherwise complacent city," said Caroline A. Griffin, who chairs the mayor's task force. "This city really did not take the crime of animal abuse seriously until recently."

In the first trial, prosecutors failed to secure a guilty verdict after a single juror rejected the evidence against the Johnsons, resulting in a hung jury.

Scott Heiser, an attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said he expects prosecutors to focus heavily on jury selection this time around.

"Ferreting out those jurors who have perhaps a bias against holding young offenders accountable — that's going to be an issue for the prosecution to work on in this case perhaps more so than the last," Heiser said.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Heiser said, has offered funding to city prosecutors for forensic analysis in the Johnson trial, but he is not personally involved in the case.

In the first trial, jurors heard a case that relied largely on surveillance video that showed part of the incident, the testimony of police Sgt. Jarron Jackson and circumstantial evidence.

The Johnsons' defense attorneys — private lawyer Sharon May and public defender Karyn Meriweather — hammered away at flaws in the police investigation. For instance, a week passed before an investigative team followed up after the injured dog was found, and officers did not follow protocol in protecting evidence when transferring the Johnson brothers' clothing to a lab analyst.

"If these mistakes hadn't been made, you could have defused a whole bunch of the defense's case," said Heiser, who previously worked as a district attorney in Oregon.

Griffin said that although the prosecution put on "an excellent case," popular television crime dramas have led to unrealistic expectations for proof of guilt.

"This 'C.S.I.' effect has spilled over into animal cruelty cases, and the jurors expect to see a lot of forensic evidence," said Griffin, who plans to attend the trial Wednesday.

Her task force, Griffin said, is focusing on developing best practices for investigating animal abuse cases and training veterinarians, technicians and police officers in collecting evidence when they find an abused animal, so that "evidence is presented as cleanly as possible" in court.

The twins' father, Charles Johnson, said his sons were simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and are innocent of animal abuse charges. The prosecutor's office, he said, wants to pin the blame for the brutal act falsely on the twins.

"Their sister has a dog. How come they didn't do that to their sister's dog?" Charles Johnson said. "Those boys were not raised in that fashion to harm any animals like that."

May and Meriweather did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to discuss details of the retrial, citing a judge's gag order in the case.

Ann Gearhart, director of humane education at the Snyder Foundation for Animals, said she believes top city prosecutor Gregg Bernstein directed his office to retry the case after considering the close jury vote and the evidence against the brothers.

"I think if the vote had been a different vote, we wouldn't be having this conversation today," said Gearhart, who serves on the mayor's animal abuse task force. "I think he realized that the jury of 11 to one was very reflective of how the people in Baltimore were thinking about this case."

jtorbati@baltsun.com

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