When the Defendant Is an Animal

As Jessie noted in a previous post, when a prosecutor is making his or her closing argument, “caution should be exercised with regard to all comparisons between the defendant and an animal.” But what if the defendant is an animal?

A South Carolina judge recently appointed an attorney to represent a pit bull alleged to have attacked and seriously injured a five-year-old boy. To one way of thinking, it’s a death penalty case, as the judge may order that the dog be euthanized.

Technically, I’m sure that the South Carolina dog isn’t charged with a crime, but instead faces euthanasia under the dangerous dog laws. However, the Wall Street Journal notes here that there is precedent for true criminal prosecutions of animals. Indeed, there is a 1906 reference work entitled The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, which describes cases such as the 1519 prosecution of field mice in Stelvio, Italy (after the appointed defense attorney’s impassioned closing argument, the judge “exiled the male adult mice immediately but gave young and pregnant mice 14 days to pack up and leave”), and the 1386 French prosecution of a pig charged with murdering an infant (she was convicted and hanged, but her piglets, charged as accessories, were acquitted on the grounds that “they were victims of their mother’s bad example”).

More recently, it appears that a lawyer was appointed to represent the interests of the dogs involved in the Michael Vick dogfighting case, though I assume that those dogs’ role in that case was more as victims than as defendants. As an aside, when an animal is the victim of cruel treatment, North Carolina has a unique statute that allows “any person” to seek an injunction against the cruelty, even if the person has no ownership or other direct interest in the animal. G.S. 19A-1 et seq.

I couldn’t quickly find any cases in North Carolina in which a lawyer represented an animal directly. But my impression is that it is not uncommon for lawyers to represent the owners of animals who are alleged to be vicious. In fact, at least one North Carolina lawyer actively seeks out cases of that kind.

I assume that referring to an allegedly dangerous dog during closing arguments as a “bloodthirsty, vicious cur” isn’t grounds for a new trial, but perhaps lawyers with experience in this type of litigation could weigh in.

2 thoughts on “When the Defendant Is an Animal”

  1. Your examples from the middle ages reminded me of the ancient common law principle that reqquired the death or destruction of the animal or instrument responsible for injuries or damages. The concept was referred to as “deodand,” which I recall studying back in the 1960’s when criminal forfeiture laws were being proposed as a part of the initial implementation of various Controlled Substances Laws.

    Actually, Dexter Watts, who recalled everything, recalled “deodand” as being an early example of state-sanctioned forfeitures, and ended up citing a case somewhere back in the first ten volumes of NC case law where pigs marauding in the streets of Fayetteville were required to be destroyed as deodand. He would remember the case name, alas, I cannot..

    Recalling Francois Villon, “Ou sont des neiges d’antan.”

    Or very roughly translated, “Where is Dexter when you need him??”

    Bob Epting


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