After a month of anguish and legal wrangling, Mary Magdalene Root was able to get her dogs back following a hearing that lasted less than 10 minutes in Harford County District Court in Bel Air Wednesday morning.
Root, 81, had been charged with seven counts (one for each dog) of having a dog at large stemming from a February 2013 incident when her dogs got onto a neighbor's property, plus four counts of dog license violations and one count of having a dog at large stemming from a May 2013 incident. The cases were heard together Wednesday.
Under a plea arrangement, Root is allowed to have her seven dogs back on her property in the 400 block of Oak Drive; the dogs had been banished following a judge's order in an earlier court proceeding.
The prosecution dropped the dog license violations and placed the seven counts of having a dog at large on the court's "stet" docket, meaning no legal action will be taken against Root for one year as long as the dogs stay on her Webster Village property. She also was fined $500.
Root appeared in court before Judge Susan H. Hazlett with her attorney, Ronald W. Parker, of White Marsh.
Michael G. Comeau, a senior assistant Harford County government attorney, was sworn in through the State's Attorney's Office to prosecute the two cases against Root.
Root had been jailed overnight in early March after she failed to show for a prior court hearing and pay fines related to the charges of allowing her dogs to get out of her yard in February 2013. At the time, her plight garnered widespread publicity, and the media started referring to her as the "Dog Lady."
Parker said he took her case pro bono.
"Of course, the whole time I didn't feel guilty, and I know I wasn't guilty and my attorney knew that also," Root said following the hearing.
During the hearing, Comeau said the state was dropping charges in the dog license case "as the dog licenses have been obtained and paid for."
He said the state had agreed, following negotiations with Parker, to place the dog at large charges on the stet docket for one year to avoid further legal action, on the condition that Root pay the fine and ensure the dogs remained on her property.
"If the animals are once again found to be at large, they will be removed," Comeau said.
Parker told the judge his client had taken stringent measures to ensure the dogs remain in her yard, including locks and doorbells.
"She's bought an extensive doorbell set," he told Hazlett, explaining the bells will be used by visitors to summon Root to open the gate to guard against the dogs accidentally getting out.
Parker also explained the nature of the stet docket to his client.
"You're not being found guilty," he said. "You're not pleading guilty, you're not on probation."
On March 5, Judge Mimi Cooper ordered Root be held in the Harford County Detention Center on $2,500 bail because Root had not paid fines or shown up for a court hearing on the licensing and dog at large charges. Root was released from jail the following day after a stranger paid her bail.
Root's neighbor had contacted the county's animal control unit and taken photos of her seven dogs – she was keeping four of them for her daughter Vatina Gifford, who lives in Cecil County – on his property.
Cooper also ordered Root not to keep any dogs at home until the pending charges were adjudicated. To comply, the dogs were sent to the daughter's home.
People in and outside of Harford County have rallied to Root's cause, out of sympathy for the elderly widow, who has said she is battling illness and financial issues, or because they are animal lovers.
A Bel Air woman showed up Wednesday to show her support of Root.
Evie Tontrup, 64, stood in the plaza outside the court building, carrying a sign that read: "Judge Mimi Cooper = Bully."
"I saw an older woman being bullied by a judge," Tontrup said. "I don't think the punishment fit the so-called crime."
Comeau noted after the hearing that animal control officers have visited Root's home an estimated 40 times in recent years regarding complaints about the dogs.
He also said she had a similar case placed on the stet docket in 2011. Online court records indicate Root was charged with one count of having a dog at large, and her case was given stet status in November 2011. No fines were imposed.
"Anyone thinking this is her first bite of the apple, this is more like her 40th bite of the apple," Comeau said.
State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly echoed Comeau's comments.
"With Mrs. Root you have to go back in the history," Cassilly said Wednesday morning. "She has been to court since 2011, and prior to these cases being brought, there were innumerable attempts to negotiate to get her to take care of her dogs. People were complaining, there were efforts to get her to please do something."
When that didn't happen, he continued, a case was brought against Root that was later steted with the understanding Root would take care of the dogs, have them properly licensed and not let them run.
He said complaints included the dogs defecating on other people's property, tipping over trash cans and barking.
"She didn't hold up her part of the agreement," Cassilly said. "The neighbors got frustrated with the dogs; they wanted her to do something with them."
"People may be outraged that we prosecuted an 81-year-old woman, but then you move next to her," he added.