Poison Penance

Phoenix resident Donald Campbell was fed up with neighborhood dogs using his front lawn as their personal rest room.

First, he posted a sign asking passers-by to pick up after their pets. When that didn't do the trick, Campbell took more extreme measures.

In February 1994, according to police reports, he cut up some wieners, added small doses of rat poison, and strategically placed the tainted meat on his lawn.

The offending dogs apparently weren't biting. Instead, a neighbor's cat, Baby Kitty, took the bait, then took ill. The feline's owner rushed her to a veterinarian and Baby Kitty survived.

Neighborhood sleuths fingered Campbell as the likely culprit. Police cited him on a charge of cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor then punishable by up to four months in jail and a $750 fine. (The Legislature increased possible punishments last April, but the crime remains a misdemeanor.)

Campbell pleaded innocent.
His defense attorney, Neal Bassett, knew that most people accused of misdemeanors in Arizona--with the exception of DUI and some theft and sex-related charges--are not automatically entitled to jury trials. But Bassett believed he was on the scent of a landmark case and, with his client's blessing, he made a stand in Phoenix City Court.

As expected, Municipal Judge Oscar Sutton denied Bassett's request for a jury trial and, in July 1995, convicted Campbell of the cruelty charge. Sutton fined Campbell $785, ordered him to pay Baby Kitty's owner $165 in restitution, and ordered him to attend "anger-control counseling."

Bassett appealed to Maricopa County Superior Court, where Judge Christopher Skelly heard arguments late last year.

Bassett's logic seemed twisted; it went like this: The crime his client allegedly committed was so heinous, so vile, it rises to the level of "moral turpitude"--a legal term for an act that may earn someone the right to a jury trial. (That a jury would probably have convicted Campbell in the wink of a cat's eye seems to have been of little consequence to Bassett.)

Assistant city prosecutor Greg Hanchett pointed out that misdemeanor crimes such as assault and selling liquor to minors also aren't jury-eligible.

"Actually," Bassett countered, "there would seem to be a big difference in a convenience-store clerk selling a six-pack of beer to a 20-year-old and the same clerk setting dogs or cats on fire, dragging them down the street with his car, or poisoning them.

"The stories about crimes against animals result in angry letters to the editor and offers to help or adopt the animals. A good example is the recent poisoning of a [service dog named Moose] which resulted in weeks of news coverage and community outrage. . . . We don't see stories about the routine assaults among people, because the community is not shocked as it is when people harm animals."

Bassett cited numerous cases in which judges have referred to cruelty to animals, including this axiom from an 1887 Mississippi Supreme Court opinion: "Human beings have at least some means of protecting themselves against the inhumanity of man . . . but dumb brutes have none."

Judge Skelly noted that one Arizona Court of Appeals ruling defined moral turpitude as an "act of such obvious depravity that to characterize it as a petty offense would be to shock the conscience."

But Bassett could cite no precedent of animal cruelty and "moral turpitude" being linked legally--in Arizona or elsewhere.

"If willingly using force and violence on a human being has been held not to be a crime involving moral turpitude," Judge Skelly wrote in rejecting Campbell's appeal late last year, "then this court does not see how recklessly subjecting an animal to cruel mistreatment would be construed as a crime involving moral turpitude."

Bassett asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to consider the case in a "special action." The court agreed to look into the matter.

On September 10, the appellate court rendered its opinion.
In a 2-1 ruling written by Judge Cecil Patterson, the court agreed with previous rulings--that Campbell wasn't entitled to a jury trial.

"While we do not condone cruelty to animals," Patterson wrote, "some acts that qualify as such are simply thoughtless expediency . . ."

In his dissent, Judge Thomas Kleinschmidt noted: "Since animals are virtually helpless against humans, the more serious forms of cruelty to animals are depraved or inherently base. Less shocking forms of conduct which constitute such cruelty certainly reflect on a person's personal values."

City court records show 64-year-old Donald Campbell has paid his fine, completed ten counseling sessions and, last January 13, sent a note to Judge Sutton.

"I'm very sorry for my actions," he wrote.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin