Baltimore is too easy on animal abusers

Eight years have passed since the brutal death of a dog named Phoenix, who was soaked in accelerant and set alight in broad daylight. The crime prompted then-Mayor Sheila Dixon to appoint an animal welfare task force, which continues to meet, but now in the form of a permanent commission.

While Baltimore has made great strides in investigating these cases, which require coordination among animal control, the police department, and BARCS Animal Shelter, too many animal abusers in Baltimore City continue to get off scot-free. The failure to competently prosecute these cases and obtain meaningful sentences can have sobering repercussions.

Take, for example, the case of William O. Murray III, who was one of 22 defendants indicted in a dogfighting scheme in Baltimore City in December 2014 and charged with 12 counts of conspiracy, dogfighting and animal cruelty. Police and the Baltimore Office of Animal Control said they found dogfighting paraphernalia and five injured or scarred pit bulls at his home, including one with severe open wounds to his right shoulder, neck and back. Yet the Office of State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby allowed Mr. Murray to plead guilty last September to only one count of animal neglect — despite submitting an expert report detailing the dog's extensive injuries, necrotic tissue, fever and malnutrition. Mr. Murray received a 30-day suspended sentence and 5 years unsupervised probation.

Howard County Police have now arrested him on charges of human trafficking and prostitution. And while he has yet to stand trial, the case is a reminder that those who brutalize animals often brutalize people.

Evidence supporting this link has existed for decades. In one oft-cited study, researchers from Northeastern University and the Massachusetts SPCA documented that people who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit violent crime. But this concept is nothing new, and indeed is one that we have understood for centuries.

Randall Lockwood, the senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA, has served on the Baltimore task force/commission since its inception in 2009. He often refers to The Four Stages of Cruelty by William Hogarth, England's most celebrated 18th century engraver. The prints each depict a different stage in the life of the fictional Tom Nero, beginning with his torture of a dog as a child, progressing to the beating of his horse as an adult, then culminating in the seduction and murder of his pregnant girlfriend. Hogarth grasped this link in 1751, simply by observing people on the streets of London. Yet the link remains an elusive concept for some prosecutors and judges.

Mr. Lockwood has done much to guide Baltimore's anti-cruelty efforts. He has conducted trainings for animal enforcement officers, police officers, district court judges and circuit court judges. He has worked with Sharon Miller, director of Baltimore's Office of Animal Control, whose office now zealously investigates these cases and has the support of Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, who oversees animal control. Moreover, BARCS Animal Shelter, a non-profit, collaborates with animal control and has forged relationships with veterinarians who help mend the battered bodies of these crime victims. Thankfully, progress has been made since Mayor Dixon convened her task force in 2009, when there was little coordination among city agencies. But this is only half the battle, and animal cruelty will not stop unless and until defendants face consequences for their sadistic crimes.

Animal cruelty is a red flag that presents our prosecutors and courts with an opportunity to reduce the scourge of violence that plagues our city. Not long ago, many of these cases never crossed the threshold of a courtroom, either because evidence was not properly obtained or suspects and witnesses were never located. Despite better investigations, too many abusers get away with a slap on the wrist. We must stop treating these cases as if they were minor property crimes. Animal cruelty is violence and we must treat it accordingly.

Caroline Griffin is a former chair of the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission; her email is cag@carolineagriffin.com.

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