Twins found not guilty in dog-burning case

Verdict reached in second trial, after first ended with a hung jury

April 11, 2012|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

It took jurors only about an hour Wednesday to find brothers Travers and Tremayne Johnson not guilty of setting a pit bull on fire — a fraction of the 20 hours jurors spent in the twins' first trial, unable to agree on a verdict.

Family members were overjoyed. But the not guilty verdicts on the four charges against each brother were bittersweet for the Johnsons and their relatives, who have maintained throughout the trials that the twins are innocent.

"That they defamed someone's character at such a young age is very troubling," said Camille Mills, a cousin of the defendants who joined their mother and siblings in court.

Animal activists, meanwhile, were frustrated and disappointed. One criticized jurors for joking, laughing and sometimes resting their eyes during proceedings. But she said a heightened awareness of animal cruelty, including establishment of the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Commission, is a positive byproduct of the case.

"Justice denied does not mean that goodness does not prevail," said Ann Gearhart, a member of the commission and director of humane education for the Snyder Foundation for Animals. "There's a lot of good that's come out of this case."

The brothers, now 20, were accused of dousing a female pit bull with accelerant and setting the dog on fire May 27, 2009, in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore — charges based largely on one officer's identification from a fuzzy surveillance video. The dog, which rescue workers nicknamed Phoenix, was euthanized days later.

The first trial ended in a hung jury in February 2011.

Many aspects of the trials were identical, but key differences hindered the prosecutors' case this time. A police surveillance video that played a significant role in both trials might have provided less evidence in the retrial because Judge Emanuel Brown barred a police sergeant from identifying one of the brothers on the tape. And a key witness in the first trial refused to testify in the second.

In a statement, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said he was "disappointed" by the outcome.

"Animal cruelty is a serious crime of violence, and those who commit it too frequently commit subsequent crimes of violence against humans," he said. "As we demonstrated in this case, we are dedicated to vigorously prosecuting individuals accused of this appalling offense."

The brothers were in custody on other charges, but Tremayne Johnson was expected to go free on bail Wednesday evening. Travers Johnson was charged with burglary and attempted murder in separate 2010 incidents and is scheduled for trial this month. Tremayne Johnson was charged with marijuana possession shortly after the first Phoenix trial. His trial in that case is scheduled for next month.

Sharon May, who represented Travers Johnson in the dog-burning case, said the jury deliberation wasn't the shortest she had seen but she felt her client had a good chance of being acquitted.

"I think the jury got the sense from the beginning that the state's case was not strong," May said after the verdict. "With each witness, things got worse for the state."

The trouble began for prosecutors Jennifer Rallo and Janet Hankin on May 3, when Tiera Goodman refused to testify. She had testified during the first trial that she saw the Johnsons running from the direction of the burning dog. In the second trial, prosecutors played a video of that testimony.

Then a friend of the Johnsons who told police he saw them with the dog on the day of the incident contradicted himself on the stand. In closing arguments Wednesday, May called his testimony untrustworthy.

After that, Sgt. Jarron Jackson, the only person to identify the brothers in the 35-minute surveillance tape that showed portions of the incident, was barred from doing so because he could not explain how he recognized Travers Johnson. The tape showed three males with the dog before the burning — two of whom prosecutors alleged were the Johnsons — and running from the direction of the burning afterward.

During closing arguments, the jurors followed the lawyers' presentations, one of them nodding as defense lawyers spoke. Earlier, there were points during the trial when some rested their faces in their hands, and they often entered the courtroom laughing with one another. After the trial, the jurors could not be reached for comment.

The Johnson family did not know what to expect from the jurors, Mills said.

"They were unreadable," she said. "We were puzzled."

A male juror who served in the first trial noted that the differences in the prosecutors' case could have affected the second trial. The female juror who did not vote to convict in the first trial wanted to see more forensic evidence, said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Defense lawyers focused on the lack of such evidence in closing arguments Wednesday.

Despite the outcome, Caroline A. Griffin, chairwoman of the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, said the case has left a legacy.

The violence against Phoenix spurred the creation of the anti-animal abuse commission, which was formed in 2009 and converted into a permanent entity in 2010. The commission, the first of its kind in the country, brings together law enforcement, animal advocates, prosecutors and others, Griffin said.

"I try to see her legacy — and she was a catalyst for so much change in the city," Griffin said.

Jennifer Brause, executive director of the Baltimore Area Rescue and Care Shelter, said she expects people to react strongly. But she urged people to keep one thing in mind: "She did not die in vain. Outrage is not going to help anyone at this point."

Baltimore Sun reporters Tricia Bishop and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

sdance@baltsun.com

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