Man Faces Murder Charges in Pit Bull Attack
A California man is facing murder charges after his pit bulls attacked and killed a woman near Los Angeles.
Maria Devitt, 63, was out walking or jogging on May 9 when four dogs set on her and ended her life with “150 to 200 puncture wounds and sharp force trauma across her body.”
Since the animals themselves cannot be charged, the law has come down on their owner instead. Police found Devitt’s blood on dogs belonging to Alex Donald Jackson, 29, who could face life in prison if convicted of murder. He’s also facing drug charges after police found a marijuana growing operation in his house during their investigation.
Prosecutors are advancing down a trail rarely tread. People can be held civilly liable for the actions of their pets, and can face criminal charges for negligence or for violating animal-specific laws, but an actual murder conviction based on a dog attack is unusual.
According to the Los Angeles Times, there were 34 dog-related fatalities last year, of which six involved criminal prosecutions and none rose to the level of murder.
Murder Was the Case
To make the charges stick, prosecutors will have to show that the defendant acted with malice, either express or implied. In this case, it would mean that he knowingly kept and failed to secure the dogs when it was clear they posed a danger to someone else’s life.
There is a precedent the courts in California can look to. Margorie Knoller and Robert Koel were convicted in 2001 of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, respectively, after their dogs killed a San Francisco woman.
The California Supreme Court ended up granting a new trial to Knoller in 2007 on the basis that the prosecution hadn’t proved that she “acted with conscious disregard of the danger to human life.” She was convicted again anyway after witnesses told of how she failed to heed warnings about previous aggression and knew she couldn’t control her dogs.
“In the facts presented here, a conviction for murder may prove difficult,” says Tai C. Bogan, a Modesto criminal defense attorney. “But rest assured prosecutors are taking pages from the Knoller prosecution playbook.”
Trained To Bite
While the Knoller case shows it is possible to be convicted of murder for the actions of pets, the state will still have show that Jackson’s situation meets the standard. “The case will be very fact-specific, as there is not a black and white or bright-line rule we can look at,” Bogan says. “Facts such as whether these dogs had prior complaints for aggressiveness will be important for the prosecution and damaging to the defense. At the same time the defense would want to determine which dogs participated in the killing,” in case the killers specifically were not previously known for aggression.
Jackson owned eight dogs in total. According to a Reuters story, this was the fourth time his dogs attacked somebody this year alone.
Much of the trial will hinge on the dogs themselves. “If the dogs were guard dogs and trained to fight or bite, that would hurt the defense,” the attorney says. “However, if some or all of these dogs can be shown to be friendly, non-aggressive and well-behaved, that will definitely help the defense.”
Ultimately the state will have a high barrier to meet, but one that is potentially attainable depending on the facts of the case. “A murder conviction will not come easy to the prosecutor,” says Bogan. “A not guilty on all counts, including a manslaughter charge is going to be tough for the defense too. Both sides have their work cut out for them.”