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Letter to the Editor: Animal abusers’ weak punishments undermine deterrence

Animal abuse is legislated in Massachusetts as a serious felony, punishable by up to seven years imprisonment, by a fine up to $5,000, or by both fine and imprisonment. A subsequent offense is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment and/or a fine of $10,000.

In Bristol County, however, the District Court’s sentence of choice for animal abuse is a “CWOF” (Continuance without Finding), along with a one-to-two-year probation. A CWOF is an admission of guilt or an admission to facts sufficient for a finding of guilt, yet the defendant is not found guilty. This loophole means that, after the probationary period has ended, the case is dismissed and the defendant’s record is expunged. It’s about the lightest sentence one can get for a felony.

Thomas and Kerry Burke, whose little dog was found blindly wandering the streets near their house on Sanford Road, each received a CWOF with two years probation this past May by Judge Toby Mooney. The dog’s eyes were so infected they had to be removed. Her fur was matted with urine and feces; her teeth were diseased and had to be extracted. She was urinating blood. She had so many stones in her bladder and down into her urethra that her bladder was extended to thrice its expected size.

The police discovered three other dogs in a small cage in the Burkes' kitchen; all with nails so long they had curled and grown into the animals’ footpads, which were terribly infected. Most of their teeth had to be extracted. Yet the Burkes were only charged with one count of Animal Cruelty and walked free.

Ann St. Laurent was charged with six counts of animal cruelty. Three small dogs and three cats were found in her home on Main Road — their food crawling with maggots, their water “green with dead flies.” The smell of excrement was reported as being “overwhelming”; feces “new and very old” were all over the house, along with heaps of trash. The Animal Rescue League of Boston had previously cited St. Laurent when she lived up in Freetown. Her children lived amidst this squalor. Judge William Gobourne gave St. Laurent a CWOF with one-year probation in December 2015.

And of course, this past September, Nicole Botelho was given a CWOF with an 18-month probation by Judge Gilbert Nadeau for six counts of animal cruelty. (Her estranged husband, Stephen, was found guilty and given two years probation.) A veterinarian determined that the deaths of four of the six animals they abandoned in their filthy house were due to a combination of starvation, thirst and flea infestation. Two cats were found alive, although one had to be euthanized.

Four of five Westport residents charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty were given CWOFs within the past two years by three Bristol County judges. (One has to wonder how Stephen Botelho managed to irritate the judge so much that he was actually found guilty and thus has a criminal record. One might also wonder if the fact that Nicole Botelho’s sister practices law in Fall River didn’t weigh in her favor.) Court records show that all CWOF defendants received the sentence recommended by their attorney, along with a “no animals” clause during the probationary period—after which all defendants could once again have animals.

Two prosecuting attorneys handled these five cases. Both recommended that the defendants should not be allowed to have animals for the duration of their probations. But beyond that, what did the DA’s Office press for?

Assistant DA Matt Friedel prosecuted the St. Laurent and Botelho cases. He recommended nothing more for St. Laurent, not even a guilty plea. For Nicole Botelho, Friedel asked for a “guilty with 2 years probation and mental health counseling as deemed appropriate by evaluation.” The clerk of court has no record of Freidel’s recommendation for Stephen Botelho. The prosecuting attorney for the Burkes asked for a “guilty” with only one year of probation. No restitution for related county or town expenditures, fines or jail time was recommended for any of the five defendants.

Here it is important to note that the ADA’s signatures on the court “tender of plea” sheets are illegible, although the signature on St. Laurent’s matches the one on the Botelhos’. Freidel was named in local newspapers as prosecutor for the Botelho case. I called the DA’s office to ask which of their attorneys prosecuted the Burke case, but was told by Assistant DA Kyle McPherson’s assistant she was not allowed to give out that information. I countered that all of the cases were now closed and therefore public record, but got nowhere.

I later learned that the Westport Police Department had also requested confirmation of the ADAs’ names, but McPherson told them he needed to forward their request to “his higher ups.” (McPherson reports directly to DA Thomas Quinn.) WPD was surprised to hear of the resolution of the St. Laurent and Burke cases as “neither they nor ARL of Boston nor the Westport Animal Control Officer had been notified or consulted about the two dispositions.”

When a group of us met with Quinn and McPherson in early October, shortly after the Botelho CWOF bombshell dropped, they assured us their office took animal abuse seriously and prosecuted it aggressively. They claimed sentencing was up to the judiciary and, if the judges insisted on lenient sentences, there wasn’t much the DA’s Office could do. Handing out his business cards, McPherson said he would keep us informed on upcoming animal abuse cases and that we were welcomed to contact him anytime with questions. In November the DA made the appreciated announcement that two staff members had been designated to oversee animal cruelty cases.

So what’s up? Why withhold public information from a concerned citizens group and the Westport Police Department? One can only surmise that perhaps the DA’s Office is not so proud of its prosecution record, and that judges may not be the only court actors responsible for the outrageously lenient sentencing given to animal abusers. One might also conclude that when the DA and his second-in-command espouse transparency and cooperation, they might not really mean it.

It appears that Bristol County prosecutors and judges are purposefully circumventing the intent of the state’s animal cruelty law. If judges and district attorneys do not think that animal abuse should be legislated as a felony, then they should have the guts and integrity to say so.

Substituting CWOFs for guilty convictions and meaningful punishment (including the stigma of a criminal record) undermines deterrence, and is pernicious to whatever public trust remains in our court system. Let us have a forthright discussion of the matter.

Constance Gee

Westport

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Letter to the Editor: Animal abusers’ weak punishments undermine deterrence

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