• U.S.

The Law: Just Like Old Times

4 minute read

In medieval days any dog, hog, horse, donkey, mouse, rat, beetle or swarm of flies charged with a crime could get a fair trial—complete with sharp-tongued defense attorney and a day before the bench. When a sow was hanged for devouring its young, a dog executed for biting children, or a rat pack or fly swarm ordered exterminated, there was no question about it: the whole legal system of the 15th century was in there pitching all the way.

It has been just like old times in Virginia, where a young lawyer recently went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court trying to save a dog condemned to die for killing sheep.

The Flaw. On Feb. 28, 1961, Farmer Sam Thompson of Pearisburg spotted Ricky, a German shepherd, crouched over the mutilated carcass of a sheep. Furious. Thompson summoned a deputy sheriff to witness the sight, then blasted at Ricky with a 16-gauge shotgun. Bleeding, the dog loped away, turned up a bit later at the doorstep of his master, retired Mining Engineer James Laing, 61. Within the week, a Giles County court issued a warrant ordering that Laing be apprehended and brought before the court.

In that county, unwritten law is that the owner of a sheep killer should shoot the dog himself. But Laing, who bought Ricky in 1956 as a gentle companion for his invalid mother, refused to believe that the dog was guilty. He hired Roanoke

Lawyer Harvey Lutins, 34, to fight the case.

At the first hearing, in county court, the judge found Owner Laing guilty of “possessing a sheep-killing dog”—and condemned Ricky to die.

But Lawyer Lutins detected a flaw. The warrant, issued by Giles County officials, had charged Jim Laing with breaking a law by owning a dog that killed sheep. There is no such law in Virginia, insisted Lutins. Moreover, action against killer animals must be in a civil proceeding.

Lutins filed an appeal to the county circuit court, argued that Laing had been “charged with an act neither prohibited nor unlawful.” Turned down, the lawyer appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia.

The Irony. Already more than a year had passed since Ricky was first condemned. The court finally ruled in a 4-3 decision that the faulty warrant was a “harmless error.” But Chief Justice John W. Eggleston wrote a dissenting minority opinion. Said he: “In effect, the [circuit] court, without notice or process, converted a criminal proceeding against the owner of the dog into a civil proceeding for its forfeiture. This may be a short cut to the desired result, but, in my opinion, it does violence to the elementary requirement of due process of law.”

It was August 1962 by then. Lutins’ efforts had added 18 months to Ricky’s life. But Jim Laing was taking no chances. He spirited Ricky across the state line to a secret hideout where Virginia executioners could not get at him. Lawyer Lutins then reached for the top. In a 19-page petition, he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. It refused: the dog must die as soon as he puts a paw back into Virginia.

Farmer Thompson felt no remorse about Ricky: “A sheep killer is a dangerous dog. If he ever came back here, I’d shoot him again.” And Virginia’s attorney general wrote of the case: “The dog surely cannot be heard to complain, for he received a fair hearing before being ordered killed—a privilege not ordinarily accorded dogs caught in flagrante delicto. How then can his owner be heard to complain simply because the hearing got off to a somewhat unorthodox beginning?”

Legally the case is closed. Only an act of mercy can save Ricky in Virginia. The Giles County circuit court could spare his life. The state legislature could pass a bill pardoning the dog. Virginia Governor Al-bertis S. Harrison Jr. says sadly that he would like to pardon Ricky, but ironically, his hands are tied by the very legal system that spared the dog for two years. Says Harrison: “A dog can be a nuisance or a menace, but not a ‘criminal’—and cannot commit a ‘crime.’ The power of the Governor to pardon is a power that can be exercised only following prosecution and conviction for ‘criminal offense.’ I am without legal right or authority to intervene in this case.”

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