Rep. Diana Urban, her dog Indiana Jones, and a group of animal advocates urged support Thursday for legislation that would appoint advocates to court cases involving animal cruelty.
The legislation was approved 38-6 by the Judiciary Committee this week and may be forwarded to the Environment Committee before coming to the House for a vote.
Animal cruelty is a “red flag” for future violent acts and it’s clear that judges need to educate themselves about the connection, Urban said.
She cited as an example the recent decision of Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan to give Alex Wullaert of Branford accelerated rehabilitation for torturing and eventually strangling a 6-year-old boxer/pitbull mix named “Desmond.”
“The prosecutor tried his best to be sure that the courts would be taking seriously the crime that this young man committed, and instead the courts decided that it would be appropriate for him to get accelerated rehabilitation,” Urban said. “That means when he’s completed whatever community service they require that it will be erased from his record. We will never know he perpetrated this cruelty to an animal.”
But Judge Keegan isn’t the first to offer an individual accelerated rehabilitation for an act of animal cruelty.
An Office of Legislative Research report found that of the 3,699 offenses brought to state courts from 2002 to 2012, 16 percent were found guilty and 84 percent were either dismissed or nolled, meaning the prosecutor decided against prosecuting.
“Accelerated rehab is supposed to be for crimes that are not a serious nature,” Urban said. “And when you look at what happened to Desmond, if that’s not a serious nature, I don’t know what is.”
According to the Branford Eagle, Wullaert had been arrested several times for violent behavior, including an attempt to strangle his girlfriend, but each time the charges were dropped or his record was wiped clean after he fulfilled court-ordered community service. Since judges are not allowed to take into account prior criminal cases unless they led to a conviction, Judge Keegan was able to order psychiatric accelerated rehabilitation.
The details of the abuse in Desmond’s case were so gruesome that some of the advocates — who were wearing “Justice for Desmond” T-shirts — covered their ears as Urban read from the prosecutors’ report at a press conference.
Urban said she’s been in contact with the Court Support Services Division about what kind of rehabilitation they have for individuals charged with animal cruelty. She said she’s unaware that any program specific to their offenses even exists.
But she doesn’t believe everything can be legislated. She applauded the Judicial Branch for adding animal cruelty to its training for judges as well. Those trainings are expected to be conducted in September, according to a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch.
Urban continues to keep the pressure on both branches of government to do what she believes is the right thing in these cases. But she admitted that it’s hard for her to understand how others don’t see animal cruelty as a precursor to human violence.
Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said that when Urban first pitched the idea of creating an animal advocate, she thought it was an “unconventional idea.”
However, news reports of these cases prove otherwise, she said.
“Taking one class in anger management after doing something like what happened to this dog Desmond is not going to cut it,” Kupchick said. “Or the case where the young man stabbed his puppy 29 times.”
She said something serious needs to happen when someone looks at a defenseless animal and wants to harm it.
Urban also wrote the legislation to make sure there was no cost to the state. The bill will give University of Connecticut Law School students an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the abused animals in court.
The law students will be supervised and will investigate the facts of the case and advocate for the animal’s interest in court. When students aren’t available, Urban said a list of lawyers has signed up to provide their services for free.
Even if the creation of an animal advocate helps get more serious sentences for another five percent of those charged with animal cruelty, then the legislation will have done its job, Kupchick said.
“Obviously the courts have not been taking animal cruelty as seriously as they should,” she said.
She hopes to be able to convince other lawmakers that it’s a serious issue.