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Anti-animal cruelty laws not that effective yet

Jan 08, 2011 3:07 pm
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="An image of "Hooch," one of several abused dogs whose case studies were utlized to help legislate "Buster's Law" 16 years ago."][/caption]Eleven years after its implementation, the success, or lack of it, of the anti-animal cruelty "Buster's Law" gets questioned in a story in this morning's Times Union, where reporter Robert Gavin finds that scores of abusers are escaping felony convictions or jail time, at least according to state data.

Of the 373 arrests under Buster's Law between Jan. 1, 2005, and Nov, 22, 2010, more than half of the defendants escaped without any conviction or infractions with penalties comparable to traffic tickets. Only 17 percent were found guilty of a felony. And in more than half of the Buster's Law cases, defendants served not a day behind bars.

Gavin goes on to point out that statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services come three years after the Times Union reported that more than 60 percent of those convicted under the law since its 1999 inception had not served any time.

"Even those people who are prosecuted, the penalties are very limited," said Brad Shear, executive director of the Hudson & Mohawk River Humane Society in Menands. Shear was pessimistic about the numbers improving. With municipal budgets tightened, he did not expect local prosecutors to have the necessary staff to devote to the number of cases.

He acknowledged plea deals are part of the system. But with Buster's Law, he noted, there is no lower-level felony that can be secured for a plea deal.

The law, passed in 1999, was inspired by the 1997 torture killing of a 18-month-old tabby cat that was set on fire in Schenectady. The cat's killer, then-16-year-old Chester Williamson, now a three-time felon, was later convicted of sexually abusing a 12-year-old mentally disabled girl in Vale Park in Schenectady. He is now at Attica Correctional Facility.

To be charged under Buster's Law, the statute reads that animal abusers must have planned to cause "extreme physical pain" or acted in an "especially depraved or sadistic manner."

Shear questioned why Buster's Law is not applied in cases where it seems more than appropriate.

In February, the former Hoosick town animal officer, Matthew Beck, admitted he shot or killed stray loose dogs and buried them in a pile of manure on his property. But he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty, official misconduct and petit larceny. His punishment was two weekends in jail.

Under the statute, acts of torture would have had to occur before the dogs died.

The same issue arose the previous October when a Berne man, Robert Bushnell, told police he shot two dogs because they were killing his chickens, chasing his livestock and acting aggressive toward his children. The man never contacted the dogs' owner before he brought the canines -- a 7-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever and a 5-year-old Alaskan malamute -- to state land and shot them. At the time, Albany County Sheriff James Campbell said Buster's Law could not be applied because the man did not sadistically torture the animals before he shot them.

In May, horse trainer Ernie Paragallo was convicted of 33 misdemeanors for starving thoroughbreds at his farm in Greene County. The county's district attorney, Terry Wilhelm, said Paragallo caused "horrific suffering" and asked a judge to sentence him to 33 years in prison for each act of animal cruelty.

Instead, Paragallo received the maximum of two years in the county jail. At the time, Columbia-Greene County Humane Society President Ron Perez said he wished Buster's Law, tailored for "companion animals" such as dogs and cats, could include horses.

"This would have been nice if it was a felony so he would have faced a higher sentence," Perez said.

Shear said even those who receive probation can still adopt a pet after five years. Michael Vick, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who served time in federal prison for his role in a Virginia dogfighting ring, recently made headlines when he said he would like to adopt a dog.

Shear said he would favor legislation making past abusers, such as Vick, undergo evaluations before owning another pet.

Such a bill has been proposed by Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, who spearheaded the original Buster's Law. Tedisco's proposal would create a registry of convicted animal abusers for pet stores, animal shelters and breeders. Anyone convicted of animal abuse would be prohibited from owning a pet unless they were deemed mentally capable to care for the animal.

The lawmaker has noticed a link between animal abuse and more violent crimes in notorious killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz and Albert DeSalvo, known as the Boston Strangler.

At a glance

Here are key statistics under Buster's Law from 2005 to Nov. 22, 2010.

Arrests: 373

Felony convictions: 63 (17 percent)

Misdemeanor convictions: 112 (30 percent)

Pleaded to non-criminal offenses: 39 (11 percent)

Total convictions statewide: 214

Defendants serving time statewide: 94

Source: State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

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