The hearing for relief of judgment for Phineas, a yellow lab sentenced to death for biting a seven-year-old girl, got under way 9 a.m. this morning. Approximately 50 people sat in the audience. One woman mentioned she had flown from Texas to attend the hearing.
At the conclusion of the hearing Judge Scott L. Bernstein gave attorneys five business days to present him with case law to answer whether or not he as the judge has jurisdiction to reexamine the case based upon new arguments that the prior counsel failed to bring up, if the judge has jurisdiction to proclaim the innocence of the animal based on new evidence, or does the fault fall to the plaintiff for failing to file the proper motion.
Representing Patrick and Amber Sanders was Jeffrey Lowe, of St. Louis. Joe Simon, the Sanders’ attorney, said he did not act as counsel because he had intended on taking the stand.
Wayna Woolman, mother of the bite victim, testified that in exchange for her signing a letter requesting Phineas be pardoned, Simon said he would take down a facebook photo of her daughter with her abdomen exposed, donate $500 to a chosen charity and stop the threats to her family.
“He never followed through,” she said to the court.
When court broke for lunch, Simon told The Salem News that he had written the letter for Woolman to sign, and made an agreement with her to take down the picture. He said there was mention of some other possibilities, including a public apology in the newspaper, but that Woolman later told him to forget about it.
Lowe said during opening statements that the initial administrative hearing held by Salem Mayor Gary Brown did not follow evidentiary rules, and was based primarily on hearsay.
During questioning Brown stated that he based his decision on photographs and reports given to him by the police department, and that he took those as fact. He stated that city ordinance says you can classify a dog as vicious with only one bite.
“Sometimes you make decisions you don’t like, but you have to follow the law,” Brown said.
The courtroom was cleared for the testimony of the minor Woolman children. The 12-year-old Woolman girl said that on at least one occasion Phineas had put his mouth on her, but had just left scrapes. The eight-year-old Woolman child testified that on June 22 Phineas had broken free of the Sanders’ daughter’s grip and bit the eight-year-old Woolman girl.
The Sanders’ eight-year-old testified in open court that Phineas had not bitten Woolman.
City attorney Wm. Camm Seay used opening statements to clarify that this hearing was to be about a relief of judgment due to mistake, not a new trial. He made objections to all testimony not associated with the relief of judgment, much of which was about the dog’s temperament.
Dr. J.J. Tune, who has housed Phineas since May 20 at the Dent County Vet Clinic, testified as to Phineas’ temperament, which he said was great and friendly. He also said the photograph of the bite mark was not that of a dog, but a primate.
Charlotte White, executive director of the Dent County Animal Welfare Society, testified that when Phineas was first brought to the shelter June 22, Code Officer Jarred Brown stated to her that Phineas had bitten a little girl and further said, according to White, “(He) is not going home. The mayor and the (police) chief need to euthanize some dogs that aren’t pit bulls.”
Brown denied those comments to The Salem News, and was recalled as a witness by Seay.
“I do not recall Charlotte White being there (when I dropped Phineas off). I did not say that, I did not infer that, and I did not think it,” Brown said on the stand.
James Crosby, an expert on dog aggression, served as the plaintiff’s final witness. Crosby testified that based on the size of the bite, and the shape, the bite could not have come from Phineas.
“The bite is not consistent with the size and breed of (Phineas),” Crosby said.
During cross examination Seay questioned whether the dog’s mouth could change as it aged, Crosby said that at approximately one year old a dog’s jaw stops growing. He went on to say the time between when photos of the bite were taken and photos of Phineas’ jaw were taken would not have impacted his findings.
Bernstein concluded today’s proceedings with a personal statement regarding the attention the case has gotten, and the personal attacks he and other involved parties have sustained.
“There are no bad people involved in this case. The publicity has been unfair. We need to be a little less harsh,” he said.
Phineas was stolen from the Dent County Vet Clinic between 4:30 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday, according to the Salem Police report. Police Chief Keith Steelman said that there were no signs of forced entry, and that they have no leads as of this time. This is the second time Phineas has been taken from his accommodations. He went missing from the DCAWS shelter in early 2013.
The Salem News took down its facebook page Thursday afternoon because of posts containing potential slander, profanity and threats.