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State v. Stewart

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

June 4, 2015

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
BILLY STEWART

Session Date March 3, 2015

Appeal from the Criminal Court for Shelby County No. 13-01037 Paula Skahan, Judge

Paul J. Springer, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Billy Stewart.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Jonathan H. Wardle, Assistant Attorney General; Amy P. Weirich, District Attorney General; and Katie Ratton, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Robert W. Wedemeyer and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.

OPINION

ROBERT H. MONTGOMERY, JR., JUDGE

This case relates to an undercover operation conducted at a Shelby County animal shelter. At the trial, Memphis Police Detective Daniel Arrington testified that while he worked in the organized crime unit in 2011, he was assigned to work undercover at the Memphis Animal Shelter. His three-month undercover operation began in November 2011. The purpose of the assignment was to investigate complaints of animal fighting, animal cruelty, and unaccounted for animals. Detective Arrington worked as a temporary animal care technician under an assumed name, and his duties included caring, feeding, and cleaning up after the animals. Occasionally, he was assigned to work with a certified euthanasia technician.

Detective Arrington testified that he worked with the Defendant daily and that he also worked with codefendant Frank Lightfoot, a certified euthanasia technician. Detective Arrington said the Defendant was an animal care technician who was responsible for treating the animals compassionately and feeding and cleaning up after the animals daily. Although the Defendant was not a certified euthanasia technician, he and Detective Arrington transported animals from their cages to the euthanasia room. The shelter had cotton leashes and "catchpoles" to transport dogs.

Detective Arrington testified that stray animals were contained in the "stray room" for a short time. He and the Defendant fed and cleaned up after the animals in the stray room. He said stray animals were euthanized if not adopted within a specified time. He said that if a dog were playful and friendly, he used a leash to transport it to the euthanasia room but that if a dog were aggressive and unfriendly, he used a catchpole. He said that the number of animals euthanized daily ranged between twenty to forty and that out of twenty dogs, approximately five were aggressive enough to warrant the use of a catchpole. The detective was always able to control aggressive dogs during transportation with the use of a catchpole.

Detective Arrington testified that after transporting an animal to the euthanasia room, it was placed in a "squeeze gate" area, which consisted of a fence attached to a wall. The area confined the animal against the wall in order for the euthanasia technician to administer a sedative. After the sedative was administered, the technician administered the euthanasia injection. Detective Arrington stated that if someone were concerned a dog might bite, a mouth guard was used.

Detective Arrington testified that on December 17, 2011, he and the Defendant transported dogs to the euthanasia room and that Kirby Hankins was the euthanasia technician. The Defendant transported a mid-sized Collie dog to the euthanasia room and told the detective, "I'm not going to be able to wrap the dog's mouth. I'm going to have to choke it out[.]" Detective Arrington said the Defendant tightened the catchpole leash, and the dog "jump[ed] up with his neck." The Defendant held the dog in that position for several minutes, and the dog collapsed to the floor. Detective Arrington saw the dog gasp for air and struggle to breathe. Mr. Hankins walked in the room and administered the euthanasia injection. Detective Arrington stated that he had previously investigated incidents of dogfighting and that he saw no evidence the Collie had been engaged in fighting before arriving at the shelter. He denied seeing the Collie bite anyone while it was in the euthanasia room. He said, though, the Collie did not want to walk or comply with commands.

Detective Arrington testified that it usually took an additional three or four minutes to transport a dog with a catchpole. He did not hear anybody "yell at" the Defendant to choke the Collie and said nobody at the shelter told the Defendant to sedate an animal by choking it. He said the Defendant told him on one occasion, "This is how you do it, Daniel. You got to . . . choke them out." The Defendant showed the detective how to loosen the catchpole, put it around the top of a dog's head, and choke the dog.

Detective Arrington testified that on December 28, 2011, he and the Defendant transported various dogs to the euthanasia room and that codefendant Lightfoot was the euthanasia technician. He said the Defendant transported a Rottweiler to the euthanasia room. The dog showed aggressive behavior, and the detective saw the Defendant maneuver the catchpole around the dog's neck and choke it until it was unconscious. The dog gasped for breath, and the Defendant told codefendant Lightfoot, "Come on. Come and hit this. No one needs to see this." Codefendant Lightfoot administered the euthanasia injection. Detective Arrington stated that although the dog displayed some aggressive behavior, it did not attempt to attack anyone and that no evidence suggested the dog had a previous history of dogfighting. It took several minutes for the Defendant to choke the dog, and the detective said it appeared dead on the floor as it gasped for air.

Detective Arrington testified that on January 4, 2012, he worked with the Defendant and codefendant Lightfoot. He said that the Defendant transported a mid-sized dog into the euthanasia room and that it appeared the Defendant had already choked the dog based on the dog's jumping and moving its head. As the detective watched the dog, he determined the dog was gasping for breath. He said the dog fell to the floor, and its breathing became faint. He said the Defendant told codefendant Lightfoot to "come on and hit it." Codefendant Lightfoot administered the euthanasia injection, but the dog did not die immediately. Detective Arrington said codefendant Lightfoot retracted blood from the dog's heart and injected the blood into its lower abdomen, but the dog remained conscious for a few minutes before dying. He said the Defendant remained in the euthanasia room during the incident and expressed concern someone might walk into the room.

Detective Arrington testified that on February 8, 2012, he worked with the Defendant and codefendant Lightfoot and that the Defendant transported a dog to the euthanasia room around 12:45 p.m. He said the Defendant did not place the dog inside the squeeze gate. The detective was already in the room when the Defendant entered with the dog. He saw that the Defendant was choking the dog, which fell to the floor and lay breathless. The Defendant told codefendant Lightfoot, "Come on, Light, hit this one. Nobody needs to see this." Codefendant Lightfoot administered the euthanasia injection. The detective did not see the dog attempt to bite anyone.

Detective Arrington testified that on February 15, 2012, the Defendant transported a small to mid-sized female Pit Bull terrier into the euthanasia room. He said that although the dog did not display any aggressive behavior, the Defendant choked the dog until it was unconscious and fell to the floor. Codefendant Lightfoot administered the euthanasia injection. The detective described the events as follows:

[T]he catchpole is just tightened even further, the animal just immediately starts jerking, jerking back and forth, moving its neck and you can see the animal just – his mouth opening like it's trying to find air but can't and it takes just moments for the animal to lay out on the floor.

Detective Arrington testified that it was impossible for a dog to choke itself with a catchpole because the user had to utilize the end piece to tighten the cord at the end of the pole. He said that none of the dogs were pulling away when the Defendant choked them and that the Defendant manually pulled the cord tight around the dogs' necks.

On cross-examination, Detective Arrington testified that the shelter director, the deputy director, and the director of human resources knew of the undercover operation. He worked with technicians other than the Defendant, and he observed one incident of abuse with another employee. He denied, though, the other employee's conduct was similar to the Defendant's conduct.

Detective Arrington testified that he learned the animal shelter's protocols from other employees and that he did not receive any training before he began working. He said that on some occasions, he attempted to redirect the Defendant to use other means to control the dogs but that the Defendant said he had the situation "under control." He denied he was told to allow animals to be treated inhumanely in furtherance of his investigation and said his investigation was terminated early because of the abuse he witnessed. He agreed he watched the Defendant choke the dogs to the floor without intervening.

Detective Arrington testified that video cameras were located throughout the animal shelter, except inside the euthanasia room. He said that he witnessed one dog being choked as the Defendant was bringing the dog into the euthanasia room but that he did not think any of the video cameras were in range. He denied viewing any of the video recordings to determine if any animal cruelty occurred in other areas of the shelter. He said he did not attempt to place clandestine recording devices inside the euthanasia room because other employees were always present.

Detective Arrington testified that he submitted a report on December 13, 2011, which identified no suspects. He said that the Defendant and two codefendants were identified as suspects when the indictments were prepared in February 2012. He said that although only one police report existed, supplemental reports were added based upon his investigation.

Detective Arrington testified that he used the squeeze gate "half of the times" and that after a dog was placed inside the gate, the dog was clenched in a vice to prevent its escape. He said the dogs walked to the gate but wanted to "scurry" away when they realized the "box" was getting smaller. He said that he used the catchpole to hold a dog without choking it when it attempted to flee. He agreed the catchpole had to be tight enough to prevent the dog from removing its head.

Detective Arrington testified that four of the five dogs at issue in this case showed signs of aggression, which he defined as snarling and barking when the dog was given instructions. He denied any dog he escorted to the euthanasia room attempted to bite him. He did not know how the Defendant was trained to use the catchpole but said anyone who observed the Defendant would have seen he treated the animals inhumanely. He observed the Defendant tighten the catchpole enough to cause the dogs to squeal and yelp in pain.

On redirect examination, Detective Arrington testified that although many of the dogs did not want to enter the squeeze gate and growled upon entering, the Defendant's conduct obstructed their airways, which caused the dogs to yelp, cry out, and gasp for breath. He said that the catchpole did not tighten on its own and that it locked after it was tightened.

On recross-examination, Detective Arrington testified that the investigation was initiated by the Department of Parks and Neighborhoods. He denied the Defendant was an identified target of the investigation before he began his undercover work. He agreed codefendant Lightfoot bragged about participating in a dogfighting ring.

Codefendant Frank Lightfoot testified that he worked at the animal shelter from 2006 to 2011 and that he was a certified euthanasia technician. He euthanized the animals at the shelter, while the animal care technician handled the animals. He said the Defendant was responsible for transporting an animal from its cage to the euthanasia room with a catchpole. He said that after an animal was brought into the euthanasia room, the technician restrained the animal in order for him to insert the fatal medication. He said that his assistance might be required to restrain aggressive dogs. He said certain breeds of dogs were aggressive, which included Pit Bull terriers, Rottweilers, Chows, and some smaller dogs. He usually did not assist a technician unless a problem arose. He recalled holding the squeeze gate closed on one occasion when a large dog showed "wild exertion." He said that once the dog was inside the squeeze gate, the technician continued to control the dog with the catchpole.

Codefendant Lightfoot testified that on December 28, 2011, he worked with the Defendant and Detective Arrington. He said that the Defendant and the detective transported animals to the euthanasia room. He recalled that the Defendant transported a Rottweiler into the euthanasia room and that the dog had an "irate attitude" and was "wild." He denied, though, that the dog bit him or the Defendant. He said the Defendant did not attempt to place the dog inside the squeeze gate. The Defendant "held the catchpole on him at a suspended area until he laid out and told [codefendant Lightfoot] that he was ready for [him] to administer the medicine." Codefendant Lightfoot described how to operate the catchpole, noting that the tension was controlled by the operator and was loosened by a button. He said the Defendant ...


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