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State v. Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 14, 2017


          Assigned on Briefs February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Marshall County No. 15-CR-112 Forest A. Durard, Jr., Judge

         Defendant, Sandra Darlene Wood, was convicted following a jury trial in Marshall County Circuit Court of one count of cruelty to animals. Following a sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced Defendant to 11 months, 29 days suspended on probation after 45 days' incarceration and ordered Defendant to pay $4, 134 in restitution to Volunteer Equine Advocates. Defendant raises three issues on appeal: (1) whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain her conviction for cruelty to animals; (2) whether the sentence imposed is excessive and contrary to the law; and (3) whether the trial court properly admitted testimony regarding a prior visit by a Sheriff's Department Detective to her farm in June, 2014. After a careful review of the record and the briefs of the parties, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          Donna Orr Hargrove, District Public Defender; William J. Harold and Michael J. Collins, Assistant District Public Defenders, for the appellant, Sandra Darlene Wood.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Alexander C. Vey, Assistant Attorney General; Robert James Carter, District Attorney General; Felicia Walkup and Weakley E. Barnard, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Thomas T. Woodall, P.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Robert W. Wedemeyer and Timothy L. Easter, JJ., joined.




         On June 27, 2014, Detective Drew Binkley, of the Marshall County Sheriff's Department, responded to a call regarding the condition of several horses at Defendant's farm. Defendant told Detective Binkley that she had been out of state and that her husband and son had failed to properly care for the horses. Detective Binkley was concerned about the condition of the horses. He testified, "you could see hip bones, rib bones, [and] the spine of the back." He observed that the horses had very little grass to eat, and the grass available to the horses was short and mostly weeds. Detective Binkley took several photos of the horses and relayed his concerns to Defendant.

         Detective Binkley and Defendant discussed her plan to get weight back on the horses and what would happen if the horses' condition did not improve. Detective Binkley advised Defendant and her husband that they needed to provide more hay for the horses. Detective Binkley told Defendant that her horses were being underfed. Detective Binkley saw some hay at the farm when he drove back by a few days later, but he did not visit Defendant again until April 2015, when he responded to another complaint about the horses. He testified that he saw multiple malnourished horses, including the same underweight horses that he had observed on his prior visit. Detective Binkley was accompanied by Detective Tony Nichols when he responded to the second call to Defendant's farm. Detective Binkley did not see any hay or food in the horses' pasture, and he testified that the pasture "appeared to be more mud than anything."

         Detective Tony Nichols also testified that several of the horses were underweight and had protruding bones and minimal fat or muscle. Detective Nichols observed that the horses' pasture was rocky, covered in weeds, and had no grass that was appropriate for the horses. He testified that he saw no signs of hay or other feed on the farm. Detective Nichols informed Defendant that he intended to contact the county extension agent, Ricky Skillington, to begin a removal procedure to take the horses out of Defendant's care. Defendant told Detective Nichols that she owned the horses and she called them "her babies."

         On the following day, Detective Nichols returned to Defendant's farm with Detective Binkley and Agent Skillington. In assessing the horses' condition, they determined that the horses needed to be removed from the property. Agent Skillington examined the horses and found "very little evidence of feed, " and the horses were quickly consuming whatever grass was growing. Agent Skillington also examined the horses' manure to check for signs of concentrated feed that sometimes survives the horses' digestive tract, but he found no signs of feed whatsoever. He found no hay in the feed pans and no signs of any recently used feed bags.

         Agent Skillington used a metric called the Henneke body condition score (BCS) to assess and examine the horses. According to Agent Skillington, as a general rule, the agricultural industry uses the Henneke BCS, developed at Texas A&M University, which consists of a 1 to 9 scale used specifically for horses. The optimum score is 5, while 1 indicates the horse is critically underweight and 9 indicates it is severely overweight. Mr. Skillington testified that a score of 4 to 6 is the industry standard and an indication that the horse is healthy. The BCS was developed to get as close as possible to a uniform system. Skillington declined to score any of the horses any higher than a 3, with two horses rating only a 1.5. According to Skillington, at a body condition score of 1.5, "you could count every individual vertebrae that they had along their backbone." Skillington testified that the horses' level of malnutrition was the cause for him to make his determination. He testified that for a horse to lose weight in that manner, it would have to have taken place over an extended period of time.

         Dr. Emily McDonald, a veterinarian with the Gallatin Animal Hospital, testified as an expert witness in the field of veterinary science. Dr. McDonald also examines and treats animals for the Volunteer Equine Advocates (VEA), a non-profit organization which takes in rescued horses. Dr. McDonald also used the Henneke BCS to evaluate Defendant's horses. Dr. McDonald examined Defendant's horses, and she agreed that a healthy horse should have a body condition score between a 4 and 6. She found that all of Defendant's horses had a body condition score between 1 and 2, and that underfeeding was the best explanation for such a condition. She also testified that this kind of malnutrition required a progression of six to eight months and could not have taken place just recently. She believed there were signs of long term starvation.

         Each of the eight horses on Defendant's farm was designated by name. Mary, a pregnant mare, was given a BCS of 1, based on a lack of food, and she had visible bones in her ribs, spine, neck, and hips. Mary was the horse elected by the State as the subject animal in the single count of animal cruelty. Dr. McDonald testified that it would take a horse five to six months to get in the shape that Mary was in. VEA removed the horses on April 6, 2015. Mary gave birth to an undersized foal soon after her removal. The foal was determined to have low weight due to mare malnutrition.

         Agent Skillington and Dr. McDonald both testified about the effect a harsh winter can have on a horse's weight. They testified that a horse is unlikely to drop more than one body condition score over the course of a hard winter. Even if a horse had a substantial winter coat, indicators of malnourishment would be visible, such as protruding bones. Dr. McDonald testified that after their removal, all of the horses properly regained their weight and had body condition scores of 4.5 and higher.

         Defendant's proof consisted of the testimony of two witnesses. Defendant's neighbor, Bert Smith, testified that he sold hay to Defendant in January 2015. In late January, he delivered two 1600-pound bales of hay. Defendant returned for more hay about one week later, and he provided Defendant two more bales of hay. Mr. Smith continued providing hay for Defendant until the horses were removed in April 2015. Mr. Smith testified that he did not know whether Defendant fed the hay to the horses. ...

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