Tuesday, August 11, 2020
A Dog Named Charlie Is Dead. His Tormentor Goes Free
By ROGER M. GRACE
Human lives, whatever the hue of the persons’ skin, matter.
Do dogs’ lives matter?
The answer by a judge of the San Diego Superior Court and the district attorney of San Diego County, evidenced by their conduct, is “no.”
The judge is Joan P. Weber. San Diego’s D.A. is Summer Stephan.
A July 31 unpublished Court of Appeal opinion from Div. One of the Fourth District tells of shocking mistreatment of a dog, bordering on torture, resulting in county authorities, after seizing the dog, putting him to death to avert prolongation of his suffering. A jury pronounced the miscreant, David D. Eastley, guilty of felony animal cruelty.
The opinion by Justice Richard D. Huffman, in People v. Eastley, D075876, reveals these uncontested facts which he took from the brief of the Office of Attorney General:
Eastley starved and neglected his dog, Charlie, until he was near death, infested with thousands of maggots, and covered in open wounds that exposed his muscle tendons and ligaments.
On August 29, 2017, Eastley’s roommate called the Department of Animal Services regarding a severely neglected poodle named Charlie. Supervising Animal Patrol Officer Carlos Wallis saw Charlie lying motionless on the ground in the backyard. At first, Wallis could not tell if the dog was alive or dead. The dog was emaciated and unable to move. He was covered in large wounds that exposed his tendons and ligaments. Charlie was infested with thousands of live maggots. The maggots were found crawling in the wounds—including in a hole under his eye—and in his fur, his ear canals, his nose, and around and inside his anus. His fur was overgrown, caked with feces and urine, and matted.
Wallis seized the dog and took it to a veterinarian. It was apparent that Charlie was suffering and in a great deal of pain. He moaned intermittently. Charlie had severe ear infections, which would have taken months to progress to that point. His teeth were rotted to the point that the veterinarian did not at first recognize that the objects in his mouth were teeth. The infection had eaten away at the bone in the dog’s jaw, and the veterinarian could see the nasal passage through a hole in the dog’s mouth. That level of dental disease would have taken years to develop. The dental disease was so severe it would not have allowed the dog to eat food. Charlie smelled like rotting garbage due to all of his infections. Charlie had no body fat and was suffering from starvation. The veterinarian decided to euthanize Charlie to end his suffering.
Huffman notes in the opinion:
“The trial court reduced Eastley’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor and granted him probation.”
Had the felony conviction under Penal Code §597(b) not been disturbed, Eastley would have been subject, under §1170 of that code, to “a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”
(The sentence was not an issue before the appeals court. Eastley, contesting the conviction, claimed that Weber denied him the right to switch counsel; Huffman said she didn’t.)
The disposition strikes me as dumbfounding. The dog was “near death,” “in a great deal of pain,” “infested with thousands of live maggots” and “smelled like rotting garbage.”
What is equally incredible is that the Office of District Attorney, upon inquiry, blithely recites that that it agreed to the outcome.
What factors could possibly justify a slap on the wrist for someone who would cause a pet to starve, deteriorate, and suffer, as described in the opinion?
Stephan told me in an email, in response to an inquiry, that she would check with her office’s Animal Cruelty Division as to why the proposed sentence was not opposed.
She noted that when she became district attorney, she set up that division, modeled after the one in Los Angeles County, desiring “to protect animals and hold abusers accountable”—and remarked:
“I certainly hope we upheld those principles.”
Lamentably, as the facts surfaced, her office did not.
A spokesperson for Stephan’s office advised on Friday:
The charges against Mr. Eastley were wobblers, meaning they could be filed as misdemeanors or felonies. But since our office prioritizes animal abuse cases and has established an Animal Cruelty Unit, the head of that unit personally prosecuted this case as a felony. Our focus on animal abuse cases is to hold the abuser accountable.
As you can imagine, trying animal abuse cases to a jury is not common. Still, in the Eastley case, we forged ahead using resources to bring this case to justice and the defendant was convicted. Unfortunately, the defendant’s attorney has personal criminal issues that interfered with the sentencing and ultimately the entire case. Mr. Eastley’s defense counsel was charged and convicted of felony domestic violence during the pendency of the animal cruelty case. That attorney did not show up for Mr. Eastley’s sentencing and a public defender was appointed and the judge held the retained counsel in contempt.
This created a plethora of legal and appellate issues and by this point it was two years after the incident. Essentially, very unique circumstances out of our control, namely defendant’s attorney committing crimes during the pendency of the case, created a very poor record. These unusual legal considerations and:
1. The sentencing criteria considered by the court, such as the defendant being the sole caretaker of three children
2. That he would have lost his job if judgment was entered as a felony
3. During the pendency of this case, Mr. Eastley completed an intensive animal abuse rehabilitation course
We believe we took the right course in agreeing to a misdemeanor disposition.
The spokesperson added the wish that it be understood the San Diego D.A.’s Office “does care about animal abuse” and recognizes that “most definitely a dog’s life matters.”
The position of Stephan’s office that it “took the right course” decidedly contradicts its assertion that it “does care about animal abuse.” Manifestly, it does not have any such commitment, despite the publicity it seeks to the contrary in setting up a special animal-abuse unit.
The existence of such a unit is a meaningless publicity ploy if it will not aggressively pursue the imprisonment of those whose offenses against animals are of the most despicable sort.
The prime responsibility for the outrage, however, lies with the judge who shrugged her shoulders over an instance of animal cruelty amounting to knowing infliction of extreme suffering by a dog over a prolonged period of time.
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley—whose views I respect—remarks that he finds the explanation Stephan’s office gives to be “satisfactory” and one consistent with his “understanding of the sentencing choices to be made by a judicial officer and the case settlement role of a prosecutor when performing a quasi judicial role in arriving at an appropriate disposition of a criminal case.”
Another person I bounced this off of—attorney Brent Braun, whose wife is, among other pursuits, a dog breeder—views the San Diego D.A.’s Office’s response as “dribble and PR Speak.”
I agree with Braun.
The supposed “poor record” in the case meant only that there was a prospect of a reversal, which would have meant a retrial—an inconvenience for the People. That prospect (a faint one, I would think) was in no way lessened by virtue of transforming the felony conviction into one for a misdemeanor. Eastley was still free to appeal.
As it happened, he did appeal; he did not bring up the matter of a deputy public defender being substituted-in at the sentencing; the appeal failed.
As to the three additional points raised by the spokesperson:
•Eastley is the “caretaker” of three children, we’re told. This is disturbing.
Should there be children in his custody? These youths were witnesses to merciless mistreatment of Charlie. How could their perceptions of acceptable conduct not be shaped—indeed warped—by what they saw?
We do know that they were living with their father at the time. The opinion relates that Eastley, on the day set for trial, said he needed a continuance because he desired to hire a different lawyer and, as a backup reason, that “he wanted a continuance because his children, who might testify, were in school.”
The fact that the defendant had children in his care should have been of no concern to the prosecutor or the judge unless the proposition is accepted that punishment of a malefactor should be less severe if he or she is a parent than if the person is childless. Is the message to be “Have Children, Escape Prison”?
It is the Child Welfare Services unit of the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency, I submit, that should concern itself with Eastley’s status as a “caretaker” of children.
•Eastley would have lost his job if he had been convicted of a felony, the D.A.’s Office points. Is that a cognizable basis for leniency?
Well, er, it does happen that those who are convicted of felonies and are shipped off to prison as a consequent penalty do find themselves ousted from preexisting employment. The D.A.’s Office begs the question of whether Eastley’s crime was one of such gravity as to warrant a prison sentence. Such a sentence, if deserved, would have been the direct result of his criminal conduct. An incidental effect—that the defendant’s employment in the private sector, during his residency in a state-provided abode, would have been interrupted—is hardly an overriding consideration.
In finding, inferentially, that the crime was not one of magnitude, the prosecutorial office and the judge evinced an utter callousness toward the severe suffering inflicted upon Charlie. Anyone with even a modicum of concern for the wellbeing of animals—and, in particular “man’s best friend,” the dog—should not condone the knowing neglect, if not savagery, on the part of Eastley.
•Eastley has taken a course on kindness to animals (presumably meeting the statutory requirement of one “designed to evaluate and treat behavior or conduct disorders.”)
Does this mean that Eastley is blameless for the torment he caused Charlie because he had not undergone such training before?
Should a man who nearly beats his wife to death be exonerated because he subsequently takes a course on anger management? Should an armed robber escape punishment for his crime by taking lessons on being nice to people and not swiping their property? Should the gathering extra MCLE units on ethics be a substitute for a shyster’s disbarment?
This proffered reason for leniency for Eastley trivializes the seriousness of his heartless offense and belies the statement of the D.A. Office spokesperson that the department “does care about animal abuse.”
What of Weber, who went along with the proposed penalty? It was she who, on May 6, 2019, imposed the sentence, legally unimpeded by any accord reached by the attorneys.
Braun—who, when an FBI agent, was a supervisor of the White Collar Crimes Division of the Los Angeles office, and later chaired the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Judicial Elections Evaluation Committee back in the days when it had credibility—offers these thoughts:
Judge Joan P. Weber has a laudable background that evidences significant academic achievement and over two decades of judicial experience including presiding over the criminal cases in San Diego County. However, apparently common sense took leave from her when she so wrongly and callously decided to ignore the gruesome facts by reducing a very substantial felony animal abuse case to a misdemeanor and then sentenced the defendant to probation.
One need only read the description of the suffering and horrific pain this poor animal endured for such a long period of time to catch a glimpse of the depraved mind that occupied and defined this defendant. It is beyond comprehension any human being could entertain such heinous thoughts let alone execute them as the defendant did in this case.
How Judge Weber (a former assistant United States attorney) who has held many judicial leadership positions including president of the California Judges Association could muster the imaginary facts to justify her decision is absolutely stunning. Her departure from common sense and the manifest viciousness of the abuse defies any rational factual thought. If any human being could be so evil for a prolonged period of time to a poor dog as was the conduct in this case it simply defies any conceivable notion of redeeming behavior meriting the decision and sentencing Judge Weber imposed. One can only hope that a probation conditions prohibit the defendant from every having any contact whatsoever with any animal of any type for the rest of his life.
Perhaps Judge Weber will reflect on the horror of the abuse, the pain and suffering this poor defenseless dog was forced to endure and its ultimate death every time she views any animal on the street or in her neighborhood or a service dog and think about what she unleashed on the animal population. Will she be proud of that decision? Will she be able to look in the mirror and say “Job Well Done”?
Former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bruce J. Sotille is appalled by the sentence. He queries how “any human being do what judge Joan Weber did,” terming it “beyond unconscionable.”
Sotille, a judge from 1983 to 2000 and now an arbitrator/mediator, labels the sentence “a disgrace, disgusting, and inhuman,” accusing Weber of a “complete disregard of the law and the duty of every honorable judge.”
“It is hard to imagine what [Eastley] could do to an helpless elderly person next. He should have been taught a lesson, not given leniency.”
Rafael Bernardino Jr., a partner in the law firm of Hobson, Bernardino & Davis, LLP and a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, sees the sentence as “outrageous,” asserting that Eastley deserved “the maximum punishment available.”
Attorney Eric Early of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae LLP, a current candidate for Congress, opines that “Eastley should be serving time behind bars for a felony and barred permanently from ever having a dog or cat or any animal ever again.”
A comment comes also from Michael D. Antonovich. As a member of the state Assembly in 1975, he authored a successful bill to upgrade the staging of dog fights from a misdemeanor to a felony, pointing out that 75 percent of the dogs die from their injuries; in 2011, as a Los Angeles County supervisor, he gained enactment of an ordinance to close puppy mills, which, he declared, “have historically abused animals by placing them in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without adequate veterinary care, food and water.”
“The judge’s action was reprehensible.
“The evidence clearly proved the crime was a felony.”
Attorney and civic leader Lee Kanon Alpert says of Eastley:
“He was charged and convicted of a felony and my question is: What overwhelming or compelling facts or law, caused them to undo justice that had already been determined? None is the answer. The actions and facts for which he was convicted were not erroneous or changed and the dog still inhumanely suffered and the defendant was the direct cause of the dog’s awful death.
Humanity and the law would have required that the proper sentence be imposed. It was not and now the judicial officer in concert with the prosecutor are responsible for justice not prevailing. They should now suffer the consequences of their actions or inactions.”
The former San Fernando Valley Bar Association president declares:
“This judge’s ruling is indicative of the worst in justice and the judiciary of today. Her decision, regardless of the basis, is mindless, insensitive and inhumane. She obviously sees animals as objects and not living beings. She also has no common sense, no understanding of the purposes of punishment or the nature of what a serious crime, such as a felony, truly means.
“She also has no idea of what dogs, or other animals for that matter, positively do for people as pets, as therapy dogs or as dogs that protect us from criminals and crimes for our society. Her reduction of sentence, as she had done, almost makes her complicit in the horrible crimes that man committed.
“She should be removed from office or perhaps should spend some time working in animal homeless shelters to appreciate the true value of animals to our society.”
The statute under which Eastley was convicted, Penal Code §597, was enacted in 1872. For 117 years, animal cruelty, no matter how egregious, was but a misdemeanor.
That changed as of Jan. 1, 1989, in light of the enactment of SB 2136, a bill carried by state Sen. Edward M. Davis, R-Valencia (now deceased). The former Los Angeles police chief acted at the behest of Laurene Weste, a Newhall horse enthusiast (who has been a member of the Santa Clarita City Council since 1998).
Triggering the bill was rancher Gerald Ingle’s utter neglect of his horses, including a failure to feed them adequately. An Oct. 21, 1987 Los Angeles Times article says: “When animal-control officers visited Ingle’s Dry Canyon ranch last week they found the pens with maggot-infested manure a foot deep and the 43 horses walking on hoofs so badly overgrown that they resembled curled Dutch shoes.”
Ingle pled guilty to 86 misdemeanor counts. Antelope Municipal Court Judge H. Keith Byrum (now deceased) placed the defendant on two years’ probation, a condition of which was community service. To many, that penalty appeared inadequate.
The considerable harm Ingle inflicted on those horses, which motivated the Legislature to create the option of prosecuting animal cruelty as a felony where circumstances warrant, pales in comparison with the sorrowful condition in which Charlie was rendered by Eastley.
For Eastley to wind up with a conviction for a misdemeanor defies the will of the Legislature, snubs the determination of a jury, and contravenes common sense.
I don’t know anything about the state of affairs in Denmark. I do discern that there’s something rotten in San Diego County.
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