Animal advocates cheered last December when the office of former State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein announced that 22 defendants had been indicted in an alleged dogfighting ring that operated across Baltimore with ties to North Carolina and West Virginia.
At a press conference on Dec. 21, 2014, officials recounted that 17 search and seizure warrants had been executed and that 225 dogs, 50 puppies, 20 guns and significant dogfighting paraphernalia were seized.
After years of uneven progress, the press conference represented the city's finest hour in its fight to combat these brutal crimes. Thiru Vignarajah, then chief of the Major Crimes Unit, outlined the extraordinary effort and resources that multiple agencies, including animal control, the police department and, of course, the state's attorney's office, devoted to the meticulous investigation, which spanned 18 months.
Hope for justice was dashed when residents learned that the prosecution of a lead defendant, Jovon Lee, was gutted after Judge Karen Friedman ruled that the state's attorney's office had committed "significant discovery violations" and, as a result, was excluding the testimony of both a fact and expert witness. Rather than attempt to salvage the case, the state's attorney's office dropped the ball entirely and dropped the charges against Jovon Lee.
While prosecutors often lack experience in handling animal cruelty crimes, the state's attorney's office, now headed by Marilyn Mosby, simply failed to do its job. Moreover, resources are available to help with these cases. Organizations such as the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the National District Attorney's Association, and the Animal League Defense Fund provide expertise and attorneys pro hac vice to prosecutors at no cost. Moreover, Baltimore has had the benefit of an Animal Cruelty Commission for six years. Dr. Randall Lockwood of the ASPCA, one of the world's leading anti-cruelty experts, has served on the commission since its inception.
This is a stunning defeat, given the overwhelming evidence. Rather than try the remaining 21 defendants, the state's attorney's office, which continues to demonstrate significant incompetence, should transfer this case to the U.S. Attorneys' Office, where federal prosecutors are experienced in handling large cases with multiple defendants. In addition, Attorney General Brian Frosh should follow Virginia's lead and appoint a statewide animal cruelty prosecutor.
Dogfighting and animal cruelty are violent crimes that deserve to be taken seriously not only because they cause incalculable suffering, but also, because these crimes are both indicators and predictors of other violent crimes. The collapse of this case is a devastating blow and Baltimore must find alternative means to prosecute these crimes.
Caroline A. Griffin, Baltimore
The writer is the former chair of the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission.