Solicitor declines to prosecute animal neglect case

WINNSBORO – Peebles is a lot like most Fairfield County pets suffering from neglect. 

When Fairfield County animal control first inspected Peebles in June, the 10-year-old pit bull was covered in fleas. A police report said Peebles had so many fleas, a flea comb filled several times.

Water used to wash the malnourished dog became darkened by the parasitic insects. Photos show a large patch of bare skin on her back, the result of a severe flea infection, according to the vet report. 

Peebles had other ailments. 

She tested positive for heartworms. Peebles had an eye infection as well.

Her front paw was mangled, the result of an unspecified injury that went untreated for eight years making it difficult for her to walk. A veterinarian said her paw required amputation.

Several teeth were missing, and what teeth remained had been ground down to mere nubs. Not only did she struggle to eat hard food, infection settled in, requiring the remaining teeth to be extracted, according to the report. 

The veterinarian’s assessment was painfully clear. 

“The doctor advised that the condition of the dog was due to neglect,” the police report said. 

Fairfield County Animal Control learned of the emaciated animal through an anonymous call. Bob Innes, the county’s animal control director, in the report described the dog’s condition as “deplorable.”

Innes said the dog has since been placed with an animal rescue organization.

Despite the horrific and unambiguous nature of Peebles’ prognosis, prosecutors aren’t pursuing criminal charges. 

Randy Newman, solicitor for the sixth judicial circuit, which includes Fairfield County, said he doesn’t dispute that Peebles suffered from neglect. But he said the case did not rise to the level of prosecution, that it lacked sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.

Calling the case a “sad situation,” Newman said he understood the owner voluntarily surrendered the animal because she couldn’t afford to care for it.

There is also a notation in an incident report that an anonymous caller notified the Fairfield County Animal Shelter about 9 a.m. June 18, 2019 of the dog’s condition. Documents show that at about 9:45 a.m., the owner surrendered the dog to the shelter.

“The applicable statute requires knowing and intentional ill-treatment of the animal,” Newman said. “In our view, it is not likely a jury would unanimously find evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict, especially considering the owner initiated contact with animal control.”

Section 47-1-40, the section that Newman cites, also says that a defendant can be found guilty when animal neglect is caused by “omission or commission.”

Newman said prevention is often more preferable to prosecution.

“Bringing criminal charges on folks who cannot afford pet care is not the answer,” Newman continued. “We need better education on what it takes to care for a pet, and I hope that folks who find themselves in this situation will not hesitate to call animal control or another shelter and turn the animal over.”

Jill Andrews, a former prosecutor in the Richland County Solicitor’s office who prosecuted the animal abuse cases, said the case does, in her opinion, meet the threshold for proving animal neglect.

“In my opinion, it does meet the elements,” Andrews said. “There may be documents that he (the solicitor) doesn’t have, or it could be they have documents others don’t have. What I did see is that it did meet the elements under the statute.”

The decision not to prosecute comes following recent legislative reforms designed to enhance animal abuse enforcement.

In 2018, the Fairfield County Council revised its animal abuse ordinance, which set a $500 fine for violations, the maximum fine that counties can impose under state law.

At a ceremonial signing in Aiken last month, Gov. Henry McMaster signed Act 43 into law, a bipartisan measure which requires magistrates and municipal judges to receive at least two hours of training on animal cruelty issues every four years.

In addition, when defendants are found guilty in animal abuse cases, they can be held financially liable for the animal’s care leading up to the trial.

In Fairfield County, animal abuse cases have a history of languishing in the legal system, including one case pending for 2-½ years.

In March 2017, Fairfield County Animal Control found a severely malnourished hog. The animal was lying on its side, unable to move, in deep mud and feces in the corner of a brick room of an outbuilding. The door to the room was boarded and nailed shut, according to an incident report.

Once weighing 300 pounds, the pig’s weight at death was 175 pounds, the report said.

A misdemeanor charge of ill treatment of animals was filed against Lirhonda Butler, 41, of Winnsboro. Butler reportedly has hired Columbia criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Johnny Gasser to defend her case. No further action has occurred in the case, according to the Fairfield County Public Index.

Newman said he anticipates the case will be tried before the end of the year.

As for Peebles, she will not have her day in court.