A Baltimore circuit judge found a former city police officer not guilty of animal cruelty charges Thursday after he slit a dog's throat last summer.
Judge Melissa M. Phinn said prosecutors failed to prove that Jeffrey Bolger, 50, was responsible for the death of a 7-year-old Shar-Pei named Nala when he slit the dog's throat in June 2014.
Bolger was charged with mutilating an animal, animal cruelty and misconduct in office.
Phinn said the verdict might not be popular, but she was "confident" that the ruling was correct. She said the evidence indicated the officer was acting in the interest of safety and that he believed he was putting the dog out of its misery.
The judge cited testimony from Maryland's chief medical examiner David R. Fowler, who said the dog likely died before her throat was cut. Phinn said Bolger would not have the expertise to know the dog was already dead when he slit her throat.
Bolger's attorneys said he was attempting to euthanize the dog in the most humane way possible.
"Rather than have a dog suffer needlessly, a dog that was going to be tested for rabies, he decided to make an incision," attorney Steven H. Levin said as he left the courthouse Thursday with his client.
Bolger did not comment to reporters.
Fowler's testimony contrasted with the findings of a necropsy performed by a doctor working for the city. She found that a cut to an artery caused the dog's death.
Prosecutor Paul O'Connor had argued that Bolger had no reason to slit the dog's throat because the dog was already restrained by police.
Bolger's attorneys said the officers were trying to get to the dog's collar to find its tags with the name of the owner.
Sarah Gossard, 30, of Charles Village, Nala's owner, left the courtroom in tears. A woman with Gossard put her arm across her shoulder. She did not comment to reporters.
In a Facebook post, Gossard said she was "heartbroken" by the judge's verdict.
"I do believe that just because this Judge didn't find the evidence sufficient, that doesn't mean that he didn't kill her," she wrote. "I don't feel that justice was served but I can only hope that Nala's death has raised animal cruelty awareness."
Bolger's attorneys said the officer did not have proper equipment to sedate the dog, and that he used the knife to cause the least amount of pain and place the public in the least amount of danger.
Levin said the case never should have gone to trial.
"There are consequences to Mr. Bolger that could have been avoided if [Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J.] Mosby's office had recognized that this case should not have been prosecuted," Levin said. "She insisted on pursuing a case against a law enforcement officer who gave his professional life to the United States Army and to the city of Baltimore, and it's outrageous that he has suffered as a result."
Levin said Bolger was forced to retire early from the Police Department and suffered after having been suspended without pay.
"Both of the officers were trying to save that dog by trying to find an owner," he said. "Unfortunately, as it was presented in court, the number on the dog collar went to a non-working number. They did everything they could to save that dog's life. Unfortunately, the dog choked itself on the pole" that officers were using to try to restrain it.
A spokeswoman for Mosby said prosecutors take animal cruelty seriously and were disappointed by the verdict.
"It will not deter us from pursuing and prosecuting those who commit heinous acts against animals," spokeswoman Rochelle Ritchie said.
Katie Flory, the director of community affairs for the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and head of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, also expressed disappointment.
"We are very sad and frustrated to hear that a guilty verdict was not given today," she said. "It shows us that we have a lot more work to do when it comes to the egregious acts to animals in our city."
Flory said the actions of Nala that were described by some witnesses as aggression were "the behavior of a dog that was frightened and trying to exit the situation over and over again."
"We are very sad for Sarah's family," she said. "It's not going to bring Nala back, and we hoped for justice for Nala and for her family."