Finding Justice in the Ashes
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Jill Howard Church, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
April 2012

Phoenix did not get justice, but the attention her plight drew helped insure that other abused animals will. It makes our efforts to be their advocate all the more urgent.

Every day, every week, the Animals and Society Institute monitors individual animal cruelty cases for our Rapid Response program. We screen news reports to determine which incidents might be most appropriate for AniCare mental health assessment and treatment intervention, and write letters first to the newspapers that report such crimes and later to judges before sentencing. In doing so, we try to educate the public and the legal system about the benefits of getting to the psychological roots of animal cruelty in order to stop the cycle of violence.

As awareness of the link between animal cruelty and other forms of violence becomes better known, we are pleased when the judicial system works and abusers are held accountable for the pain and suffering they cause innocent animals.

But there are times -- like this week -- when justice is seemingly denied and abusers appear to get away with heinous crimes.

jill howard-church phoenix pitbull burn

In Baltimore, two young brothers charged with dousing a young pit bull with fuel and setting her on fire in 2009 were acquitted of cruelty charges on Wednesday after their first trial ended with a hung jury last year. The case made national news, and illustrated what seemed to be a wave of cruelty cases in that city. Phoenix, the burned dog, was eventually euthanized because of her severe injuries, making the case not only outrageous but deeply tragic.

It was frustrating for prosecutors and law enforcement officers, who felt they had arrested the proper suspects, to not get a conviction. But as anyone familiar with the legal system (or just watches it on TV) knows, evidence and testimony can be convincing to one juror and not the next, and a key witness from the first trial in this case failed to testify in the second. In the end, however, it felt as though Phoenix had been burned twice.

But although Phoenix did not get justice, her killing motivated the city to establish an anti-cruelty task force -- the first of its kind in the nation -- to look at animal abuse as a serious crime and develop comprehensive ways to stop it. Part of the task force's report included provisions for the use of AniCare for convicted abusers, and cruelty cases in Baltimore are now tracked and prosecuted like never before.

As Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein told the Baltimore Sun, "Animal cruelty is a serious crime of violence, and those who commit it too frequently commit subsequent crimes of violence against humans," he said. (Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the young men arrested for burning Phoenix is awaiting trial for attempted murder.) "As we demonstrated in this case, we are dedicated to vigorously prosecuting individuals accused of this appalling offense."

There is some solace in knowing that something positive did indeed rise, almost literally, from the ashes of this awful incident. However much we all want animal abusers (and people abusers) to be held accountable for their crimes, we must respect the legal system even when we disagree with it.

Phoenix did not get justice, but the attention her plight drew helped insure that other abused animals will. It makes our efforts to be their advocate all the more urgent.

Jill Howard Church is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She is currently Managing Editor of AV Magazine for the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) and the President of GAveg, the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.

Return to Animal Rights Articles