BANGOR, Maine – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court wrapped up three days of considering appeals by hearing oral arguments Friday morning in a case that challenges the constitutionality of the state’s aggravated animal cruelty statute as being too vague.
The case stems from an incident in February 2009 when Corey Robinson, 31, of Montville and three other men tried to train their blue tick hunting dogs using a bobcat captured in a cage trap and kept in a garage overnight, according to briefs filed in the case.
The bobcat died the next day, Feb. 13, 2009, in a wooded area near Troy when the men tried to get it out of the cage using a catch-pole. When the catch-pole, described as a long pole with a leash at the end, apparently malfunctioned, the bobcat struggled against the leash, while the dogs attacked it, the briefs said.
One of Robinson’s hunting companions captured the bobcat’s death on videotape and estimated it took the animal about three minutes or more to die once released from the cage, according to the briefs.
Robinson, who worked as a prison guard with the Department of Corrections, was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, a Class C crime, and violation of closed season trapping, a Class E crime. A Waldo County jury found him guilty on Oct. 25, 2011, on both counts after a two-day trial. Superior Court Justice Robert E. Murray Jr. sentenced Robinson to 15 months in prison with all but 10 days suspended and two years of probation and a $1,000 fine on the cruelty charge and to a concurrent 10-day sentence on the trapping violation.
Because he was convicted of a felony, Robinson lost his job, according to a previously published report. He also lost his right to possess a firearm.
In his appeal, Robinson asked the justices to set aside the jury’s verdict on the felony charge.
Robinson’s attorney, Thomas S. Marjerison of Portland, who did not represent Robinson at his trial, argued that the events that led up to the bobcat’s death did not constitute “depraved indifference to animal life” as the law requires. Marjerison said in his brief that the high court’s previous ruling in a domestic violence case that found the term was not constitutionally vague does not apply to the facts in Robinson’s case.
In that instance, Marjerison argued in his brief, the defendant deliberately threw and then drove over a cat during a family fight.
“Robinson and [the] other men were merely trying to safely release the bobcat to train their dogs,” he wrote. “An inadvertent accident resulted in the death of the bobcat. In a ‘fair’ hunt, the result would have been the same for the bobcat. … Simply, the bobcat suffered no more than if
killed in a ‘fair’ hunt.”
In his brief, Eric J. Walker, deputy district attorney for Waldo County, called the death of the bobcat “a crime that should never have happened.”
“The bobcat was trapped illegally in a live trap during closed season and by an unlicensed trapper,” he wrote. “It was then used illegally to train dogs as live training aid. The bobcat then suffered a long, tortured death being attacked by four large dogs. Given the senselessness of this crime and the extreme grisly manner in which it was carried out, it is not surprising the jury reached the verdict it did.”
In an unrelated case out of Lewiston District Court, Jacklyne S. Poole, who was convicted of domestic violence assault, challenged how the court system allows defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes to elect to have jury trials. Jeffrey S. Dolley, the Lewiston attorney handling her appeal, told justices Thursday that the two different methods of asking for jury trials used in Maine violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Poole was required to request a jury trial within 21 days of her arraignment, Dolley said. If she had lived in either Penobscot or Cumberland county, Poole would have been required to opt out rather than opt into a jury trial.
Courts in those two counties operate under a unified criminal docket rather than a District Court docket for misdemeanors and a Superior Court docket for felonies. The combined system was implemented several years ago in an effort to create efficiencies in the system, Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley has said previously.
Justice Donald Alexander pointed out that since 1981 defendants charged with felonies have had the option to opt out of, rather than ask, for jury trials.
In addition to ruling on appeals, Supreme Judicial Court justices in Maine are the administrators for the court system. Maine is the only state where the justices have such dual roles.
“If you are right, we could never take steps toward the incremental implementations of reform and create a pilot project as we have done the [Unified Criminal Docket],” Justice Andrew Mead said to Dolley.
“It would be very easy to do,” Dolly replied. “All you have to do is amend a rule so all defendant got the right to a jury trial [without a deadline]. Then all defendants would be treated the same.”
James “Ted” Glessner, the adminstrator for the court system, sat in on Thursday’s argument. He said the long-term goal is to implement the unified criminal docket in every county.
The justices next will hear oral arguments in September at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
There is no timetable under which the court must issue its decisions.