This week’s case brings us up to Saratoga County, NY: a 3-hour drive north from Manhattan, and a two-hour drive east from Syracuse.
Saratoga Spa State Park includes a hotel, 2 pool complexes, mineral baths, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, picnic areas, hiking trails, and numerous mineral springs. Saratoga County serves as the southern gateway to the Adirondack Park, the largest park in the contiguous United States, covering about 6.1 million acres (about the size of Vermont), and larger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains combined. Like so much of New York, it is a great place to visit in the Fall.
But like many cases we discuss, this one is no picnic. This is a case about the cruelty that springs from ignorance. In this case, the victim is a companion pet.
Gonk, 30 lb. mixed breed “companion” dog; Aaron J. Brinkley, Gonk’s owner; Chip, Aaron’s nephew.
GONK THE PUPPY
Aaron and his adult nephew, Chip, lived together in an apartment. They bought a puppy, a few months old, that they named Gonk. Among other approaches to train and discipline Gonk, they used negative reinforcement, including promptly "paddling" or "popping" Gonk on his rear end with an open hand after bad behavior, then placing him in his crate for a “time out.”
BAD GONK – 15 Months
When Gonk was 15 months old, he weighed 30 lbs. One day, Chip discovered that Gonk had defecated in the apartment. Upon attempting to paddle him, Gonk bit Chip’s thumb, causing bleeding and injury. Chip was then able to get Gonk into his crate. About 10 minutes later, Uncle Aaron arrived home. Chip told his uncle what had happened and Aaron saw his nephew's injury.
Aaron removed Gonk from his crate, brought him to Chip, and put Gonk's face by the bleeding thumb. Aaron screamed at Gonk telling him that he was a bad dog. He then proceeded to paddle Gonk a few times. Gonk then bit off a portion of Aaron’s thumb.
Aaron then called a friend to bring him to the hospital. Then Aaron tried to herd Gonk onto the back porch, but Gonk became aggressive and continued to bite Aaron. Aaron then repeatedly kicked Gonk and used a metal hammer to beat Gonk into submission and put him out on the porch. And that is where Gonk died because of his injuries.
Uncle Aaron was arrested and charged with aggravated cruelty to animals. (A person is guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals when, with no justifiable purpose, they intentionally cause serious physical injury to a companion animal with aggravated cruelty).
TESTIMONY OF AARON – DIRECT TESTIMONY
Q: How long was it from the time Gonk bit Chip until you came home?
A: About 15 or 20 minutes.
Q: Why did you remove Gonk from his crate?
A: To teach him that biting was bad.
Q: Aaron, Gonk was in the crate when you came home, right?
Q: You could have left him there rather than taking him out to discipline him at that time, right?
Q: After being bitten but before you attacked Gonk, you called your friend to go to the hospital, right?
A: Yessir. Sounds about right.
Q: So you had time to call the police or animal control, but you didn’t do that, right?
A: I guess; but look, I didn’t want to hurt him.
Q: Sir, you also could have closed Gonk in the bathroom, rather than hitting him with a hammer in that room and then carrying him out to the porch, right?
A: Maybe, I don’t know. I was trying to protect myself, and my nephew. It was Gonk’s fault!
Q: Gonk’s fault! Didn’t you tell the police that you, and I quote,"went after Gonk" and hit Gonk in his face and wherever else you could; and that you were, quote, "going to put Gonk down, not bring him somewhere, just do it?”
A: I might have said that. In anger.
Q: And what you meant by that was that you were going to kill Gonk, right.
A: I was in shock from the injury to my thumb.
Testimony of Veterinarian
Q: You performed the necropsy on Gonk?
Q: And that is like an autopsy for humans?
A: Yes, it is. “Necro” refers to “dead” and “psy” to study, so necropsy is the “study of the dead.” “Auto” refers to “self” so autopsy is “self study.” So an autopsy is technically a necropsy, but because a “human is performing it on a human” it is an autopsy. A human is performing it on an animal is necropsy.
Q: I see. Thank you, doctor. What did you observe?
A: Numerous lacerations, tremendous bruising, compressed cervical vertebra, blood spattering and staining around the dog's face, blood behind one eye and visible destruction of the dog's mouth, such that almost all of Gonk's teeth were fractured or missing.
Q: Aaron testified that Gonk’s teeth were damaged when Gonk bit onto the hammer with such force that he broke his own teeth. Is that what you concluded with a reasonable degree of veterinary medical certainty, doctor?
A: It is not: a dog would not cause itself that much pain, and tremendous force would be required to damage the strong teeth of a young dog.
Q: Doctor, did you conclude with a reasonable degree of veterinary medical certainty, Gonk’s cause of death?
A: Yes. The cause of death was traumatic internal damage to the main organs of Gonk’s chest and abdomen, including a macerated liver and significantly bruised spleen. The free blood in the chest cavity and two collapsed lungs indicated that Gonk struggled to breathe and likely suffered a difficult death.
AARON’S CLOSING STATEMENT
People of the jury, Aaron’s actions were justified in protecting himself and his nephew from a crazed dog. Do we really want to fill our prisons with people who are trying to teach their pets? I ask that you find Aaron NOT GUILTY. Thank you for listening.
PROSECUTION’S CLOSING STATEMENT
The testimony, that you listened to, along with pictures of Gonk’s massacred corpse, support the conclusion that Aaron's kicking and attack with a hammer not only caused Gonk serious physical injury but constituted aggravated cruelty, in that it was "carried out in an especially depraved or sadistic manner." You took an oath to carry out your duty as jurors. I just ask that you all keep your word and find Aaron GUILTY!
THE JURY’S VERDICT
WE THE PEOPLE of the jury find the Defendant, Aaron J. Brinkley… GUILTY of aggravated cruelty to an animal. To Gonk.
Will the Defendant please rise. I hereby sentence you to 2 years in prison and you are prohibited from owning or keeping in or around your household an animal of any kind FOR A PERIOD OF 50 YEARS from the date of your release. You are remanded to custody. Take him away.
Aaron’s attorney argued:
- The sentence was harsh
- The grisly photos should not have been shown to the jury;
- The jury should have been given an instruction on Aaron’s justification for the attack on Gonk;
The Appeals court disagreed:
- The Sentence: Although County Court sentenced Aaron to the maximum permissible term of two years in jail, we cannot conclude that the sentence is harsh or excessive, given Aaron’s extreme violence in this incident.
- The Photos: Although they are unpleasant, the photographs are relevant to establish disputed and material issues, namely, Aaron's intent to cause serious physical injury with aggravated cruelty, and they help illustrate and corroborate the medical testimony.
- The Justification Defense: That defense is not applicable here: it permits a person to "use physical force upon another person” NOT A DOG.
Aaron goes to jail. And he cannot have a pet probably for the rest of his life.
Justice served? See you next week.
Here is the case: http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2019/2019_05728.htm