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The killer knew and was living in the same home as the victim.  The killer squeezed the infant’s neck until he died.  The killer was taken into custody as police conducted an investigation into the death.  When officials announced the death penalty would be sought for the killer, hundreds protested and held a prayer vigil.  Protesters pointed out that the killer was deaf, had come from a broken home, and had no prior record.  They demanded that the killer not only escape a death sentence but be released from incarceration.  They said the real perpetrators were the parents of the victim who left him alone with the killer. 

Oh, and did I forgot to mention that the victim was a six month old human being, the killer was a dog and that those hundreds of protesters are idiots? 

The case involves a pit/bulldog (also reported as a being a Dogo) mix named Polar which was adopted out of a foster home.  It was deaf and reportedly came from some unspecified prior abusive situation.  In its new adoptive home it either picked up by or bit the neck of a six month old baby while his parents where in another room.  The dog was turned over to animal control and slated for euthanasia (which has since been carried out). 

“Protestors” of the threatened euthanasia feigned sympathy for the parents while laying the blame on them for leaving their child in the wrong place.  I’m sure this heartfelt understanding sounds familiar to every rape victim patted on the back and offered the comfort of “you shouldn’t have been walking in that dark alley in the first place”.  The supporters of the dog called for its release, claiming no prior bad behavior, a troubled upbringing, a physical disability, and that its owners had put it in the situation through no fault of its own. 

This may be the most bizarre and schizophrenic confluence of apologists I’ve ever seen.  The classic “blame the deed, not the breed” folks have moved on to a “blame the victim, not the deed or the breed” position that is truly spectacular. 

Let us step back for just a moment and look at this case since it is an example of thousands of similar cases involving bites each year and 30 or so involving fatal attacks.  First, let’s ask the question that seems to gets different answers depending on the situation: Do we treat Polar like an animal or a person?  The answer to this question is important because the protesters seem to want to view Polar, a dog, as if it’s a person, even a child. 

I say this because it’s the only possible reason one would bring deafness, an unstable upbringing, or lack of “intent” into the discussion.  If it’s merely a dog, the simple fact is that for whatever reason it killed a kid.  We don’t know and can’t imply “intent” beyond knowing that it wasn’t protecting itself from an infant (a favorite “blame the victim” excuse).  It’s a dog, dogs bite things.  Adding other factors means you want the dog to be viewed through a human behavioral lens.  And that only makes these protestors look like bigger morons. 

Let’s say Polar was a human who killed an infant for an unknown reason.  Let’s say Polar was Casey Anthony with a hearing problem and a bad childhood.  First, how many of these people are vocally anti-death penalty for humans, I wonder?  Second, even if this was the case, how many would advocate for a human murderer’s release? If Polar was a person and was 100% guilty, a life or at least long, long sentence in prison or a mental hospital would be the most likely turn.  Even young children who kill children in our nation are often treated like adults in trials and sentencing. 

Do they oppose this in humans?  Do they want Polar to be incarcerated (what’s 20 years to life in dog years, anyway)?  Do they blame the victim when it’s a person killing a child?  Of course they don’t.  But in their misguided caring for animals they ignore the fact that they are not consistent.  What they would never do in a human case they do for a dog.  If these people were packing up to go to Texas to protest the capital punishment of the murderer put to death there this week as well, I might at least applaud their universal application of the belief that life is sacred and Polar and the racist murderer should be spared. 

But they don’t.  They just want to save the dog. 

Do they stand outside that animal control facility every day protesting the dogs and cats that are among the millions put to death each year for no other reason than they are homeless?  Aren’t those tragedies more protest worthy than an infant killing dog?  Not to them.  Their calculus is tragically flawed and has more to do with their own egos than any true care about the plight of animals generally, that one animal itself, or even, God forbid, the dead child and safety of those that dog may come into contact with in the future if it was paroled. 

In the case of a killer dog, death is hardly an unusual punishment when one considers the millions who face it for a simple lack of a home.  And what is the alternative to death, permanent detention?  Isn’t that truly the more cruel punishment? 

I am not someone who supports breed bans.  I know that trying to ban a breed based on data that mayshow greater numbers of bites might as well lead us to declaring young black men a “dangerous breed” because they are disproportionately represented in human crime statistics.  Not that it hasn’t been tried.  There are deeper causal factors in both cases which are more the cause that the color on one’s skin or the percentage of a dog’s breed. 

I also know that we should engage in a careful balancing of the real risk facing us from fatal dog attacks.  There are on average between 16 and 30 a year in the United States and a disproportionate number are caused by pit bulls.  But there are about 60 lightning fatalities a year in the US and a disproportionate number happen in Florida.  We don’t ban going out in the rain or travel to Florida.  The reality is dogs have far more to fear from us than we do from them. 

But dogs which kill human beings, the up to 30 or so a year, do not deserve this level of faux concern and histrionics when they are balanced against the millions euthanized every year which have killed no one.  Or the millions more who are abused.  The protesters need to re-evaluate their priorities.  Their attraction to this case smells of the men and women who seek out prison marriage with convicted murderers they don’t know.  It is unseemly to the point of perverse. 

The decision of the government in this case was correct.  The protestors should dry their crying eyes and direct their concern at all the animals (gosh, maybe even people) who are suffering and dying daily without the specter of manslaughter hanging over them.  Get a grip. 

The victim was a six month old human being, the killer was a dog and those hundreds of protesters are idiots.

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Conclusion (from parts one and two)… 

I hope the delay in the conclusion due to my vacation left you with bated breath.  I will try to be as concise as the first two parts were not.  The Dauphin County case shined a light on the many problems surrounding not only the issue of pigeon shoots but how animal cruelty investigations and prosecutions are handled in Pennsylvania.  I have a few ideas for how to fix those problems: 

Clarify the law.  Either pass a law banning pigeon shoots outright or pass a law making them explicitly legal.  Any reasonable reading of the current law would hold them illegal already but some DA’s and judges seem to have this whole “tradition trumping law” thing going.  The legislature should simply make it clear for them and make shoots legal or illegal, outright.  To do less is cowardly.  Don’t legislators have the courage to follow the lead of the twelve Senate Judiciary Committee members, Democrat and Republican, who voted openly for a ban recently?  Or even the temerity of the three who sent in proxy “No” votes but at least went on the record.  Must we ask, are they cowards

Prohibit conflicts of interest in prosecution determinations.  No elected District Attorney should be able to veto prosecution of an individual, corporation or group which has financially supported his or her campaign, as has happened in the case of pigeon shoots promoted and supported by the Pennsylvania Flyers Association.  A mechanism needs to be created which allows the decision to be made by someone without the conflict.  I’m not sure what that mechanism is (I’m paid to think about dogs and pigeons, not judicial administration), but I’m sure there’s someone out there with a good idea.

Eliminate possible vote considerations in judicial determinations. Cases involving large number of voters, such as a sportsmen’s club charged with cruelty, should not be heard by an elected Magisterial Justice who may be impacted by a loss of votes.  It should be possible to make a case for a change of venue to a Justice who will not face the wrath- or benefit- of a large group of voters based on his or her decision.  Again, I’m sure someone knows how to make that work. 

And those seem like the easy ones!  Here come the really hard and unpopular ones: 

Undertake judicial reform.  Our last two elected governors from both parties, Rendell and Ridge, both tried to implement judicial reform.  Judges should not be elected, especially in partisan elections.  Justice should not have a political party and it should not be based on popular opinion.  I am not at all a lawyer basher (when I grow up law school is high on my list of options) but I think we can all agree that there are some pretty big morons out there with a law degree who managed to pass the bar.  That, a pocket full of money, and connections to the political powers that be should not determine who has the power of freedom and incarceration or life and death. 

There are many bi-partisan ways to ensure that highly skilled, qualified and competent attorneys become judges.  These ways would let us have at least the confidence that when we disagree with a decision we don’t also have to question the competence of the judge.  I’d also argue that Magisterial Justices should be subject to the same merit selection process.  Being well known in the neighborhood or a political flunky is no qualification to wear a robe. 

Strip non-governmental agencies of their police powers.  The State passes the laws, the State should enforce them.  They should not abdicate that responsibility and that power to non-governmental organizations as it has done with cruelty law enforcement and animal shelters.  It is has the potential to be a clear conflict of interest and it is unfair to the organization which bears total cost and liability in a way a real police agency doesn’t—did you know we bear 100% of the cost of doing the State’s job, have no protection from frivolous lawsuits that is provided to “real” police, and that we aren’t even given a cut of the fines we generate the way “real” police departments do?  I am a trained and sworn humane society police officer and I am asking the State to do its job and let me get back to doing mine, not theirs.  Remove our police powers. 

Create a special cruelty police force or mandate cruelty law enforcement by local police.  Animal shelters got the “right” to prosecute cruelty because the police simply weren’t doing it.  I’ll offer to give up that right but the state must step up to do its job and enforce the laws on its books.  All the laws.  The Pennsylvania State Police already provide training in cruelty law to its officers and the Trooper who does it does a great job.  Why can’t we create a State Police cruelty law division for higher level offenses (misdemeanors and felonies)?  They know what they are doing and have the resources. 

For smaller offenses (summary cruelty cases), local police should be mandated to provide enforcement.  Minor animal cruelty is the ultimate quality of life, “one broken window” crime.  Active enforcement of low level cruelty violations is not just good for animals; it’s good for neighbors, the community, public safety, and property values.  These cases are often a window into bigger crimes which only the “real” police can address and the fines from citations are revenue generators.  Local shelters can and will still be active partners in assisting police with seizures, owner support, animal handling, etc.  The HSBC will happily assist, but we should be there to support, not prosecute. 

My shelter friends will ask why this will work now when it didn’t before, which is why we have police powers in the first place.  Because the State will have to field the calls that don’t get addressed by local cops (and there’s nothing like an annoyed State Trooper who has to pick up local slack) and they can use the power of the purse.  If local police departments are statistically underperforming, withhold State funds from them.  When the money dries up, enforcement will increase. 

So there we have it, a pocketful of solutions.  Legislation explicitly banning (or permitting) pigeon shoots, DA conflict of interest reform, venue reform, judicial selection reform, and humane society police officer and cruelty prosecution reform.  Problem solved.  Some of these solutions may be easier than others.  Some of the ideas may be better than others or even downright terrible.  But there you have them, possible solutions to actual problems.  With apologies, they were not terribly concise, but only a twit thinks you can discuss real solutions to major problems at Twitter length. 

Unlike the recent “courageous” passage of the bill banning the simulcasting of greyhound racing—which hasn’t ever actually happened in Pennsylvania—these aren’t solutions in search of a problem.  They are possible solutions for problems people, animals, and organizations actually face every day in Pennsylvania. 

Let’s at least vote on some pigeon shoot legislation.  Even I am getting tired of talking about pigeons.

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Continued from part one…. 

I will just come out and say it.  I question the ability of judges seated through partisan elections to be impartial.  Pennsylvania is one of 39 states which seats at least some judges through popular elections of some sort and in Pennsylvania we hold partisan elections. 

Sure, we know justice is blind- but apparently we also need to know if she is a Republican or a Democrat.

In polls, the public overwhelmingly supports the election of judges (65% in an Annenberg Public Policy Center Poll).  However, 63% of people also believe that past contributions to judicial election campaigns affect the fairness and impartiality of a judge’s decisions.  As American’s we are not always an intellectually consistent people. 

For example, a Gallup poll recently showed that only 43% of Americans were satisfied with the quality of education today generally (a percentage, interestingly, almost unchanged in the last 40 years.  We apparently also have terrible short-term memory.).  But when asked what they thought of the quality of their own child’s education, 80% were satisfied.  If 80% of us think our school is OK, why do we think all the rest are not, despite the 80% support of the parents of children at the other schools?  Because we have embraced Emerson’s definition of intelligence and function while embracing two opposed ideas at once.

The same is true for our opposing ideas about judges.  We believe that campaign contributions have an effect on judicial rulings and that justice can be blinded by money, yet we cling to the idea of electing judges.  In 2006, 16 million dollars was spent in ten states on supreme court elections alone.  $16,0000,0000.  Do we really think those campaign donors didn’t think they were getting a return of their investment?  We must break from this cognitive dissonance and remove the potential for judicial decisions  based on campaign contributions and campaign considerations.

The issue is compounded at the Magisterial Justice level in Pennsylvania for two reasons.  First, the pool of voters is very small in these partisan elections.  These justices must run every six years in partisan elections to keep their job.  A decision rendered in a cruelty case involving the owner of a dog may mean they lose one vote- the convicted owner of the dog.

Is it unreasonable to question whether a decision in a case involving a large local sportsmen’s club, with potentially hundreds of local members, might not nag at the mind of a justice faced with making an impartial decision?  A guilty decision in such as case could result in a loss of hundreds of votes and the loss of a job and income.  Are any of us, even judges, so confident that we are brave enough to always hand down a decision with that potential consequence, even if it was the right one?

The second issue with Magisterial Justices is the fact that one only needs to be 18 years old, a citizen, a district resident, and win an election to become one.  Justices get rudimentary training after election but they are not required to have a law degree, be a member of the bar or have the slightest legal- or any- education.  This may be fine if a bad conviction is handed down since a defendant can immediately appeal to a higher court with a judge who does have this legal background.

But for almost every cruelty charge- in fact the vast majority of all cases- brought in Pennsylvania, the first courts to hear the cases are District Courts.  A poor not guilty ruling ends the case.  There is no recourse, even if the person is clearly, even admittedly guilty.  There are Magisterial Justices who find defendants not guilty of animal cruelty, even when there is overwhelming evidence and the defendant has admitted to the crime.  There are justices who routinely do not issue the minimum fines for animal cruelty even when they do convict a defendant, minimum fines which are literarily written into to law and are required under the law.  They simply ignore it.  Heck, one justice called a press conference (how judicial) to complain that certain officers weren’t prosecuting cases they were clearly and explicitly prohibited by law from prosecuting.

To be clear, these justices are few.  But when the only criteria for being a justice is winning by one vote in a partisan election where only a few hundred people may turn out for an off year municipal election, it is not shocking that we do have a few, frankly, unqualified justices out there.

Now, let me also come right out and say another thing.  I question the ability of Humane Society Police Officers to be impartial when bringing charges in animal cruelty cases.  Pennsylvania has a truly bizarre method of investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty cases.  We allow anyone to take an 80 hour class, find a (or just create their own) non-profit organization to employee them on staff or as a volunteer, and get a judge to swear them in as officer with the ability to enforce PA 5511, the cruelty code.  That person can then go prosecute animal cruelty.

The intent of this law was to actually get animal cruelty prosecuted since the police weren’t doing it.  It had the added benefit that charities now did the work and assumed the costs- woohoo, free law enforcement for Harrisburg!  As is the case with justices, most of these officers are good at their jobs and apply the law reasonably.

But think for just a minute how private police would look enforcing any other law.  Imagine if Berks Women in Crisis, which helps victims of domestic violence, could also get its staff and volunteers authorization to enforce domestic violence laws against those committing violence against the women they help.  Or if Opportunity House, which helps children, could enforce child abuse laws?  Wouldn’t we be asking ourselves if these agencies could truly be impartial in applying the law?  Wouldn’t it be fair to question whether they might not be acting as activists and not as officers?

In the Dauphin County case I can’t help but wonder two things:  Was the judge swayed by his consideration of the response of his local electorate and was part of that decision balanced against the fact that the charges were brought not by “real” police officer but a Humane Society Police Officer who has been working on the issue of pigeon shoot cruelty for years?  Neither of these things should be considerations.

Of course, I personally believe Johnna is following the law and not her beliefs because I know, respect and have worked with her.  But that justice did not know her.  One would hope that the fact that the Dauphin County District Attorney allowed her to pursue the case would have added credibility in the justice’s mind but he may also have known that DA’s can make personal and political decisions, too.  After all, they are elected as well.

In fact, Dauphin has the only DA who allowed charges to go forward under current law against pigeon shoot organizers in the three counties in which they are held.  Charges were not permitted to be filed in Bucks County by the Bucks DA and charges were withdrawn twice in Berks County by the Berks County DA.  In both cases the DA’s stated that they felt there was no legal grounds for the charges and as the chief prosecuting officer, they have that right and we have no reason to question their motives.  However, given what I outlined in part one of this blog, I think it is fair to question their legal determination.

And as elected officials, might they also be open to questions of impartiality due to election considerations?  The voting pool is larger so one sportsmen’s club may not swing an election.  What about campaign contributions?  If a DA threw out charges filed by local police against a business owner and it turned out that DA had received campaign contributions from that business owner, wouldn’t one pause to consider the motivation? 

At least one DA who blocked prosecution of a pigeon shoot did, in fact, receive campaign contributions from the Pennsylvania Flyers Association, the group which promotes pigeon shoots.  Even if the decision not to prosecute was rock solid legally, doesn’t it cast a shadow on the choice?  Wouldn’t a recusal or an acknowledgement of the contribution be a better course?

And, of course, the single biggest problem in this case is the fact that anyone can claim any ambiguity in the law at all.  If the PA Game Commission doesn’t think pigeon shooting is covered in its regulations or the game code and no one else can identify why shooting and stomping thousands of birds is allowed under the other cruelty exclusions, why haven’t we simply passed an explicit law to ban them?  If all the NRA pocket legislators are so enamored with this “tradition” why won’t they simply pass a law explicitly permitting these shoots?

Aren’t legislators in Harrisburg to legislate for Pennsylvania?  Why all the hand wringing about bear hunts in Maine, Second Amendment rights, and the awesome stuff we’ve done for hundreds of years in Pennsylvania (someone cue Swanee River…)?  What does this have to do with pigeon shoots?  They should have the courage of their conviction and either ban or legalize shoots, immediately.  Wouldn’t that make this whole issue simply go away?  Animal rights people hate deer hunting but you don’t see them making that big a deal about it because it’s legal.  They focus their efforts elsewhere!

So, this case has helped us to indentify potential problems with the law (or lack of pigeon shoot law), judges and their selection, how DA’s decide to prosecute, and the officers who bring the charges on behalf of animal organizations.  I think there are specific ways to solve these problems.  Some are (or should be) easy and some, well, not so much.

(To be continued in the final part…)

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