Animal Cruelty Conviction Upheld by Appeals Court
The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed an animal cruelty conviction of a woman who was found guilty of starving her miniature dachshund to death, in a decision released on Tuesday.
Tasha Waller, 36, of Lynn, was convicted of one count of animal cruelty after a bench trial in Lynn District Court in September of 2014. Judge Cathleen Campbell sentenced her to two and half years in the House of Correction, suspended for five years, 500 hours of community service and was ordered not to own pets or animals and be subject to random inspections while on probation.
The evidence and testimony presented at trial proved that on January 23, 2013, Waller brought her emaciated miniature dachshund, Arthur, to the Massachusetts Veterinary Referral Hospital in Woburn because he was nonresponsive. After providing emergency medical treatment, the veterinarian, Dr. Christina Valiant, authorized euthanasia. The defendant told Dr. Valiant that Arthur had “always been thin” and had lost some more weight in the week prior to his death.
At trial, Dr. Valiant testified that it was her opinion, based upon her experience and training, that it would have taken 4 to 6 weeks of starvation for a pet to go from a normal body weight to an emaciated condition. A second veterinarian, Dr. Pamela Mouser, of the Angell Animal Medical Center, who performed the necropsy on Arthur, testified that it was her opinion that the cause of death was severe malnourishment. The necropsy report, which was entered as evidence, concluded that Arthur had no body fat and a substantial “loss of skeletal muscle mass,” and found no evidence of any other disease that may have caused a rapid weight loss.
On appeal, Waller argued that the animal cruelty statute was void because the term "animal" was constitutionally vague, because the animals protected by the animal cruelty statute were not specifically stated in the law. The Court rejected this claim and had "no trouble concluding that dogs are animals within the meaning of the word 'animal'" as used in the animal cruelty statute. In response to a subsidiary claim that a miniature dachshund was not reasonably within the clear meaning of the term 'animal' used in the statute, the Court clarified that "[a]ll dogs are animals regardless of breed" and further held "that protecting dogs comes within the hard core of the law's prohibition on starving animals in one's custody."
The defendant also argued that it was improper for Drs. Valiant and Mouser to testify to their opinions as to how Arthur died and how long he had been starved since they had not previously examined him. The Court held that the opinion that Arthur had died from not being fed, and that he had been starved for a period of four to six weeks were not speculative. The Court agreed with the prosecution that the opinions were based upon both Doctors' observations of Arthur’s body, including observations made during a necropsy, their own elimination of other possible causes for his death and their training and experience.
Essex Assistant District Attorney Katelyn Giliberti prosecuted the case at trial and Essex ADA Philip Mallard argued the case on appeal. The defendant was represented by Attorney Sarah Unger.