A Dog of a Case: Andrew Thomas Again Proves That Indicting the Innocent Isn’t a Good Idea

The crime was so heinous, it made headlines across the nation — and sent some animal lovers racing to their phones to make death threats.

Dr. Joshua Winston, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, had repeatedly punched a Chihuahua in the head, using such force that the poor dog's eye popped out. A Sheriff's Office spokesman said that the dog, Bella, had survived, but it was "wait and see" as to whether the eye would ever see again.

Led from his office in handcuffs, Winston was indicted on a felony charge of cruelty to animals. He was denounced by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. TV news crews filmed his perp walk.

But a funny thing happened last month, more than a year after Winston became the most notorious veterinarian in America: The case against him collapsed.

We're not talking technicalities here. We're talking about a charge that was complete bullshit from day one. Testimony at Winston's trial last month shows that he never actually punched the dog. He was merely trying to restrain a high-strung pup for a procedure when an accident happened. The rest was a witch hunt, spurred by a few disgruntled employees and perpetrated by a media-hungry sheriff and prosecutor.

Believe it or not, eye popping isn't even that bizarre, as far as animal injuries go. Experts say that bug-eyed dogs, like Chihuahuas, can have an eye dislodged from its socket under fairly benign circumstances. (There's actually a word for it, proptosis, and a quick Google search shows plenty of dog lovers discussing the problem.)

Dr. Winston's newer staffers were upset, and the doctor felt awful. But the accident apparently didn't even cause long-term damage. Dr. Winston stitched the eye back into place that day; Bella had already regained partial vision by the time of the arrest.

And here's the crazy part: The Sheriff's Office knew it. Deputies actually took Bella to three veterinarians to get expert opinions before making the arrest — but then ignored those opinions when they didn't agree with the sheriff's theory of the case.

All three vets, according to court filings, said they saw no sign that Bella had been punched. (A blow to the eye, one vet pointed out, would cause the eye to "recess" back into its socket, not fall out.) And one of the vets actually told the sheriff's deputy that, in his 17 years of practice, he'd had four different dogs experience the exact same problem while in his care.

Of course, the Sheriff's Office didn't tell the media that — nor did the Maricopa County Attorney's Office share that info with the grand jury. Hey, this was big news, and neither Sheriff Joe nor County Attorney Andrew Thomas ever let the facts get between them and a television camera. And once Winston had been charged, they certainly couldn't lose face by admitting they'd screwed up.

So they actually took this dog of a case to trial!

The state spent tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer resources to try it. Dr. Winston, meanwhile, was forced to clean out his savings, spending $60,000 for his criminal lawyer and an eight-day trial where his professional life hung in the balance.

In the end, it fell to the jury to determine what Arpaio and Thomas had been too stupid, or too stubborn, to acknowledge: Dr. Joshua Winston wasn't guilty of anything.

It took the jury less than three hours to find him innocent.

I wasn't planning to write about Joe Arpaio or Andrew Thomas this week. It's always the same story with these guys: a rush to judgment, an overzealous application of the law, and some poor slob stuck with a giant legal bill and a life in ruins.

These two are truly the most inept lawmen of our time — and yet this county will probably re-elect both of them anyway, just because of their success in rounding up Mexicans. Say "illegal immigration" frequently enough and brains across Maricopa County turn to mush. Really, I guess we deserve these clowns.

But then I went to Rick Romley's press conference.

Romley was county attorney for 17 years. When he decided to retire in 2004, he endorsed his fellow Republican, Andrew Thomas. (He now works part time for Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.)

Last week, Romley held a press conference to say that, though he'd originally intended to make no endorsement this year, "I can no longer keep silent." He blamed Thomas, in part, for an atmosphere of "McCarthyism" in the county, then gave a stirring endorsement of Thomas' Democratic rival, Tim Nelson.

It was pretty good stuff, especially since with Romley's endorsement, Nelson has garnered the support of just about every big deal prosecutor in town. And Romley's not even the only Republican — Nelson has been endorsed by former Attorney General Grant Woods and former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton. These are fine men with excellent reputations; the fact that they're throwing their weight behind Nelson should make every Republican carefully consider their choices.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske