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State v. Trent

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

March 30, 2017


          Session March 22, 2016

         Direct Appeal from the Criminal Court for Sullivan County No. S60042 R. Jerry Beck, Judge

         The Appellant, Van Trent, was convicted by a Sullivan County Criminal Court Jury of five counts of facilitation of dogfighting. The Appellant received concurrent sentences of eleven months and twenty-nine days for each conviction, sixty days of which was to be served in confinement and the remainder on probation. On appeal, the Appellant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence sustaining his convictions, the trial court's instructing the jury on lesser-included offenses over the Appellant's objection, the denial of the Appellant's right to counsel, the admissibility of expert testimony regarding the causation of scarring to the dogs, the introduction of the Appellant's appearance bond as rebuttal proof, and the trial court's denial of full probation. Upon review, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments of the Criminal Court Affirmed

          Gene G. Scott, Jr., Jonesborough, Tennessee (on appeal), and J. Matt King, Kingsport, Tennessee (at trial), for the Appellant, Van Trent.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Renee W. Turner, Senior Counsel; Barry Staubus, District Attorney General; and Julie R. Canter, Assistant District Attorney General, for the Appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Norma McGee Ogle, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which John Everett Williams and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.



         I. Factual Background

         During a search of 1207 Imperial Drive in Kingsport, the police found four scarred pit bulls and a multitude of items related to dogfighting. The police discovered that the address was listed on the Appellant's driver's license and checking accounts as his address. Thereafter, the Appellant was charged with nine counts of dogfighting.

         At trial, Sergeant Jimmy Wayne McCready of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department testified that on October 20, 2011, he was standing in the front yard of 1207 Imperial Drive, waiting to execute a search warrant. The Appellant walked up to him, and Sergeant McCready asked if he could help the Appellant. The Appellant responded that "it was his home or his house and wanted to know what was going on." At that point, Sergeant McCready asked one of the detectives to speak with the Appellant. Sergeant McCready had no further contact with the Appellant.

         On cross-examination, Sergeant McCready acknowledged that in the statement he gave to Detective Richard Kindle on February 2, 2012, he said that "homeowner Van Trent [the Appellant] showed up." Sergeant McCready explained that although the Appellant "never mentioned [being the] homeowner, he mentioned that he was - it was his house, is how he put it."

         Sullivan County Detective[1] Richard Kindle testified that he executed the search warrant around dusk on October 20, 2011. Janette Reever with the Humane Society of the United States also participated in the search. During the search, Detective Kindle found four pit bull dogs in the backyard. Two of the dogs were in separate kennels. The other two dogs were each chained to a different car axle that had been driven into the ground.

         Detective Kindle also found a wooden treadmill in a storage building. The Appellant told Detective Kindle that he made the treadmill. Detective Kindle found a document titled "For historical purposes only, Cajun Rules." The rules, which were for dogfighting, had been written by "G.A. (Gaboon) Trahan." The rules had been printed from the web site "" Detective Kindle found several books and magazines about pit bulls. Additionally, Detective Kindle found a metal sled and a plastic tackle box. The words "Liberty Farms" and "show" were written on each end of the tackle box. Detective Kindle found framed photographs of "Old Mountain Men Kennels" and the Appellant's son, Travis Trent, [2] posing with a dog. Detective Kindle found IV tubing, syringes with needles, and two prescription bottles containing pills. He found a kennel registration with the American Dog Breeders Association (ADBA). The police also found antiseptic ointment, dietary supplements, various veterinary items, a large metal spring, a nylon harness, dog show award ribbons, and pedigree charts. Detective Kindle discovered a dry cleaning receipt from a business in North Carolina; the receipt was dated April 4, 2011. Detective Kindle also found a receipt from a hotel in North Carolina that reflected a stay from January 30, 2011, to February 2, 2011.

         From the Appellant's vehicle, Detective Kindle recovered the Appellant's personal checks. The checks listed the Appellant's address as 1207 Imperial Drive.

         On cross-examination, Detective Kindle acknowledged that the search warrant reflected that the residence belonged to "Travis Trent" and did not mention the Appellant's name. When Detective Kindle spoke with the Appellant at the property, the Appellant was cordial and respectful. Detective Kindle stated that he found two checkbooks in the Appellant's vehicle. The checks from the Appellant's account at Eastman Credit Union reflected that the Appellant's address was 1207 Imperial Drive. The other checks, which were from the Appellant's account at Charles Schwab, reflected that his address was 5104 Antler Ridge Court, Raleigh, North Carolina.

         Detective Kindle said that he found no evidence of dogs or dogfighting in the Appellant's vehicle. Additionally, he found no evidence that dogs had been on the wooden treadmill the Appellant had made. Detective Kindle conceded that he found no evidence inside the residence that indicated the Appellant was living there.

         Detective Kindle said that in the house, he found a kennel registration that stated "Liberty Farms, Lovers and Breeders of American Stratfordshire [sic] and Pit Bull Terriers, Travis and Jill Trent, Kingsport, Tennessee." Detective Kindle found no evidence that the Appellant was associated with the dogs, the dog shows, or Liberty Farms Kennel. The Appellant's name was not on any of the magazines found at the house, and Detective Kindle did not find any evidence that the Appellant had bought the veterinary supplies or had used them on the animals. Detective Kindle did not find videos or photographs of dogfighting, a fighting pit, a wash tub, sponges, weight scales, blood, or dogfighting contracts.

         Detective Kindle said that after the four dogs were removed from the property, they were taken to Dr. Becky DeBolt, a veterinarian, for examination.

         On redirect examination, Detective Kindle stated that the Appellant said he did not know where Travis Trent was; nevertheless, from the dry cleaning and hotel receipts, Detective Kindle surmised that Travis Trent was in North Carolina. Detective Kindle noted that the Appellant showed up at the property at the beginning of the search and that despite Travis Trent's absence from the property, the dogs had been fed and watered.

         Detective Kindle stated that the dog books and magazines were not hidden and were openly displayed in the living room. Detective Kindle knew that dogfighting was "secretive"; therefore, he was not surprised when he was unable to find "clearly labeled and named evidence." Detective Kindle noted that the Appellant had said he made the wooden treadmill by hand and that the police found woodworking tools in the house.

         The parties stipulated to the admission of an affidavit that reflected the Appellant applied to Eastman Credit Union on October 20, 2011, and that the application reflected his address was 1207 Imperial Drive. Additionally, the parties stipulated to the admission of copies of the Appellant's 2010 and 2012 Tennessee driver's licenses. Each license reflected that the Appellant's address was 1207 Imperial Drive. The parties also stipulated to the admission of a check from the Appellant's account at Regions Bank. The check, which was written on April 26, 2010, listed the Appellant's address as 1207 Imperial Drive. Finally, the parties stipulated to two separate vehicle registrations in the Appellant's name. The application for registration for a 1993 Toyota was made on January 6, 2006, and the vehicle registration renewal was dated February 4, 2011. The application for registration for a 1994 Nissan was made on February 13, 2007, and the vehicle registration renewal was dated February 4, 2011. Both applications and both renewal forms listed the Appellant's address as 1207 Imperial Drive.

         Sullivan County Detective Matthew Price testified that he found two security cameras mounted on the exterior of the house: one camera was located on the front porch, and the other was aimed at a portion of the driveway. The cameras were motion activated and were linked to a digital video recorder (DVR). The police recovered recordings that were made from October 1 to October 16, 2011. The recordings showed the Appellant coming to the property on four separate occasions. On each occasion, he arrived in a white Toyota then walked toward the garage. No cameras were directed toward the backyard, the storage building, or the back door of the house.

         On cross-examination, Detective Price said that the security recordings revealed the Appellant spent almost six hours at the residence on October 2, he spent almost three and one-half hours at the property on October 7, and he spent the night at the property on October 12 and on October 14. The recordings showed only the Appellant's arrivals and departures, not his activities while at the property.

         Janette Reever, an expert in dogfighting, testified that she assisted with the search of the house, yard, and outside building. A "whelping kennel" for breeding dogs was in the garage. Four American pit bull terriers were found in the backyard. Their names were "Sadie, Brew, Blaze, and No Name." Two of the dogs were on large chains. Each chain was attached to half of a car axle; each axle had been driven into the ground far enough apart so the dogs could not reach each other. The chained dogs were "adjacent to" two dogs that were in separate wire kennels. While waiting for animal control officers to arrive, Reever interacted with the dogs. The dogs were not aggressive toward her, which Reever said was common for fighting dogs because they had to be around people before, during, and after fights.

         Reever said that the injuries sustained by dogs as a result of professional dogfighting usually occurred to the front legs, head, muzzle, or "stifle area" on the rear leg. In her work as a veterinary technician, Reever also had seen untrained dogs after non-staged fights, and she said that the injuries were different than those sustained during an organized dogfight. Generally, a dog injured in a non-staged fight had assumed a "submission position" and, as a result, received injuries to the neck or abdominal area.

         Reever examined photographs that were taken of the four dogs retrieved from Imperial Drive. Reever identified numerous scars on the muzzle, ears, front legs, and rear leg of the first dog, a "pup" approximately one year old. She did not identify the name of the first dog. The second dog, "No Name, " who was also approximately one year old had scars to the head, ear, above the eye, shoulder, and "all over" the front legs. Additionally, the dog had multiple healed puncture wounds and a laceration above the eye. The third dog, a seven- to nine-year-old Reever did not identify by name, had scars to the ear and shoulder, "pressure sores" on the front leg, and a healed puncture wound. The final dog, Sadie, who was approximately eleven years old, had lacerations to the ear, scarring on the "hock area, " a healing puncture wound, and a pressure sore. Reever said that based upon her training and experience, her "expert opinion [was] that these dogs were being raised and bred for the purpose of dogfighting."

         Reever said that a tackle box, which she called a "crash kit, " was found in the garage. The kit contained white and black chalk, and each shade could be used to conceal a dog's scarring. Another item, an alligator hemostat, was a surgical tool for "pinch[ing] off" a blood vessel for suturing. The kit also contained an IV catheter, bag, and line that could be used to "rapidly deliver intravenous fluids" to combat the effects of blood loss, stress, and shock in a dog after a fight. Further, the kit contained betadine, an antiseptic for cleaning the area where the IV would be inserted. Additionally, the kit contained saline solution which could be used for hydrating a dog, rinsing a wound, and diluting medications. Reever explained that crash kits were commonly found at the homes of dogfighters because dogfighters had to personally treat their dogs instead of calling a veterinarian after a fight.

         Reever said that several of the dietary supplements found at the property were used to help rebuild muscles of dogs that were "heavily worked." Another supplement was for "flush[ing] out the kidneys" after a dog was given steroids so the dog's kidneys would not "fry."

         Reever stated that a "break stick" was found at the residence and that the words "Liberty Farms Show" were written on the side of the stick. Reever explained that a break stick was used to pry open the mouth of a pit bull dog. The stick had visible teeth marks on it, which indicated the stick had been used.

         Reever recalled that copies of the "Sporting Dog Journal" and the "American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette" were found in the living room. The "Gazette" was published by the ADBA, which certified and registered pedigrees for pit bulls. The "Sporting Dog Journal" was an "underground" journal used to disseminate information about training dogs for fighting. Reever stated that the "Sporting Dog Journal, " which was often found in the homes of dogfighters, could be purchased only if a known professional dogfighter vouched for the purchaser.

         Reever said that professional dogfighters usually had their own kennel name and had dogs with established bloodlines. Reever said that dogfights, which were often referred to as shows, matches, or events, were established on a professional level by either a written contract, "a gentleman's agreement, " or a handshake. Reever noted that contracts were seldom written; therefore, handshakes were the most common way of establishing an agreement.

         Reever noted that dog pedigrees were found in the living room, but none were for the dogs discovered at the residence. Nevertheless, one of the pedigrees was "addressed to Jill and Travis Trent" and was for a dog registered to Liberty Farms Kennel. Each of the pedigrees listed dogs in the lineage that were well-known among dogfighters. The pedigrees also contained "code words" and were of the type of pedigrees that were commonly "found at properties where dogs are being trained for fighting purposes."

         Reever identified a copy of "The Cajun Rules" that was retrieved from the residence. She explained that in the 1950s, Louisiana Chief of Police G.A. Gaboon Trahan wrote the Cajun Rules, which were the most frequently used rules of dogfighting. Reever said that during the eight-week period before a fight, a dogfighter generally trained and conditioned the dog on a daily basis. Dogfighters referred to the period of conditioning as "the keep." The keep included making the dog run, usually on a treadmill, for one hour to one hour and forty-five minutes each day.

         She noted that a flirt pole and a spring pole were found on the property. A flirt pole was made of a long, stable object, such as a branch or a piece of PVC, from which was dangled an item of "high value" to the dog, such as animal hide or a stuffed animal. A spring pole was made from a spring hanging from a solid, stable object, such as a pole, from which a high value item was dangled. A sled was also found on the property. She opined that the sled was too small for legitimate weight pulling but that it could be used to increase a dog's endurance.

          On cross-examination, Reever acknowledged that a photograph of the first dog showed an injury to the rear area. Reever acknowledged that during a "nonstaged" fight, a dog could be injured on the rear area but that the injury would typically be "by the base of the tail where the dog is trying to run away." In the photograph, however, the injury was not around the base of the tail and was instead on "the top side area. It's called the stifle." Reever said that although she noticed injuries to the dogs' ears, none of the dogs had pieces of ear missing. She said that the injuries to "No Name's" front legs were inconsistent with the dog being in a submission position. The third dog had wounds consistent with pressure sores, which Reever could not say were caused by dogfighting. The oldest dog, eleven-year-old Sadie, who was not extensively scarred, had some scarring to her ear and healed injuries to the stifle area. Reever was not certain the injuries were caused by dogfighting; nevertheless, if the injuries were caused by dogfighting, the fighting was not recent. Reever explained that even if a dog was not used for fighting, it could be used to breed fighting dogs if it had a desirable blood line.

         Reever acknowledged that she had no evidence of the Appellant attending or betting on a dogfight. She conceded that the Appellant's name was not on any of the pedigrees for Liberty Farms Kennel, but she stated, "A kennel can be a multitude of people. . . . Just because someone's name is on a kennel, there could be other partnerships that are also involved in there." Reever stated that the authorities did not find a fighting pit during the search but asserted that it would have been unusual to find a fighting pit where fighting dogs were housed.

         Reever stated that the harness and sled found at the property could serve the dual purposes of legitimate weight pulling and "conditioning a dog for a keep." She looked at a photograph and agreed that the dog in the photograph was wearing a harness similar to the one found at the residence, that the dog appeared to be engaging in a weight pull, and that the man in the photograph appeared to be Travis Trent. The Appellant was not in the photograph.

         Reever stated that the tackle box found at the residence was a crash kit for treating wounds received in a dog fight but that she had no proof that the contents of the box had been used.

         On redirect examination, Reever noted that the two female dogs found at the property had not been spayed and that the two male dogs had not been neutered. She opined that if a sled and harness were found at the same residence as a copy of the Cajun rules for dogfighting, she did not think the sled and harness would be used for "legitimate" purposes. She said that the items found in the crash kit were not used in weight pulls. She said that any one of the items found by the police, if considered on its own, did not suggest conclusively involvement in dogfighting but did suggest dogfighting if considered together.

         As the defense's first witness, Dr. Bea Moody testified that she was a veterinarian who treated mainly dogs and cats. The trial court allowed her to be designated as an expert in the field of veterinary medicine.

         Dr. Moody said that in the course of her practice, she had seen dogs, including pit bulls, that had been injured during a fight. She said that the types of wounds depended on how many dogs were involved in the fight and the size of the dogs. She said that pit bulls had huge jowls made up of "rock-hard muscle" and that they had the strength to "rip" skin and limbs from other dogs. Dr. Moody said that pit bulls usually would attack near another dog's groin or neck. Nevertheless, she asserted that pit bulls were "good dogs" and that she did not "see a whole lot of pit fights."

         Dr. Moody said that after the four dogs were taken from the Imperial Drive residence, they then were taken to Young-Williams Animal Shelter. Several months later, the Appellant contacted Dr. Moody and asked her to examine the dogs. Dr. Moody's first visit was on August 9, 2012. She said that the dogs were "excellent" and were not aggressive.

         Dr. Moody said she was provided a list of items that were seized from the Imperial Drive property. She had to do independent research because she did not recognize some of the items. She talked with clients that owned pit bulls and a "master groomer" that showed and bred pit bulls. She also reviewed the "records and findings" of Dr. DeBolt, who was "the veterinarian in charge of Young-Williams Animal Shelter." Dr. Moody also looked at photographs of the dogs that were taken in November.

         Dr. Moody maintained that she and Dr. DeBolt found "no scars indicative of dogfighting." Instead, Dr. Moody found evidence of "normal wear and tear." She observed that eleven-year-old Sadie had minimal scarring and that none of the scarring indicated she had been involved in dogfighting. She stated that one of the young dogs had scars on his legs. She said that the dog was housed with another young dog and that the scarring could be from the dogs playing and gnawing on each other. In conclusion, she opined, "These dogs have not been involved in fighting. There's no evidence, physical or otherwise in my mind, that they have been involved in fighting, or I wouldn't be here."

         On cross-examination, Dr. Moody said that she had examined the flirt pole. She had to "look it up 'cause [she] wasn't sure what it was." When asked if she was aware that the flirt pole was often used to train dogs to fight, Dr. Moody responded, "I'm learning." Dr. Moody did not know that the "Sporting Dog Journal" was an underground publication that posted results from dogfights. She acknowledged that a copy of the "Cajun Rules" was recovered from the residence. She stated, however, "I have several things at my house, books of witchcraft, ...

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