Capping a highly controversial animal-cruelty case, jurors on Monday acquitted a Huntington Beach man who used a baseball bat to kill the dog that mauled his toddler son.
Alan Roberts, a 30-year-old roofer, raised his arms in triumph as the verdict was read in Orange County Municipal Court. Cheering by his relatives and supporters drowned out the court clerk who read the verdict, which came after about three hours of deliberations.
Roberts, drained but elated, said the jury seemed to accept his explanation that he never intended harm when he fatally bludgeoned the Akita mix that mauled 19-month-old Andrew outside a Huntington Beach coffeehouse July 30.
"The jury basically stated it was never my intention to kill the animal," he said.
But Roberts, who found himself at the center of a highly publicized debate over whether he acted as a vigilante or a traumatized parent, expressed sorrow for his actions.
"Baseball bats don't solve problems," he said after the verdict. "Keep your dog on a leash and leave softball bats on the softball field."
Had he been convicted, Roberts would have faced up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $20,000.
Jurors were ushered out a back door and left without speaking to reporters.
Members of the jury were asked in closing arguments to choose between the letter of the law and their sympathies for a protective father in deciding the misdemeanor animal-cruelty charge against Roberts. They sided with their feelings for an enraged parent.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Tammy Spurgeon said she believed the jury disregarded the law, which makes it a crime to hurt an animal intentionally.
"It was a very emotional case and there's so much sympathy involved," Spurgeon said. "I think it came down to emotions, because I think the law is very clear."
Defense attorney Todd Landgren, who compared the mauling of the child to a rape and urged jurors to put themselves in Roberts' place, agreed that passions carried the day.
"I don't think they ignored the law," he said. "I think they took into consideration the emotions."
The verdict, following a trial that lasted barely more than a day, prompted a fresh outcry from animal rights advocates.
April Wyld, the owner of the 8-month-old dog named Kaya, was said to be distraught over the decision and could not be reached for comment.
"She's very upset," said Jason Jones, a neighbor who interceded in the attack and had hoped to testify against Roberts. "This is more than just a verdict in a case about a guy killing a dog with a bat."
"I think people will think it's OK to take their frustrations out on animals," he said. "I guess it's OK to beat animals."
The attorney representing Wyld in civil lawsuits against Roberts called the verdict "horrible."
"It's bad, really bad because the only protection animals get is when the person who hurts them is stopped," said attorney Michael Rotsten. The lawyer said the verdict in the criminal case is not necessarily an indication of how Wyld will fare in the civil lawsuit she has filed against Roberts. Roberts has also sued Wyld.
"I can't wait to get my mitts on him," Rotsten said.
The controversy began July 30, when Roberts, his fiancee, Stacey Morton, and their son, Andrew, stopped at the Java Jungle coffeehouse during a walk so that Roberts could use the bathroom.
When he came out, Morton was screaming and Andrew lay on the ground, bleeding severely, as the 55-pound dog ripped at his face, according to Roberts and another witness. The couple hurried the boy to a local hospital, where he received more than 60 stitches to close gashes on his nose and forehead.
An hour after arriving at the hospital, Roberts testified, he decided to find the dog. He first stopped at his home to grab the bat. A witness at the coffeehouse led him to where the dog lived with Wyld nearby.
Wyld, who was told her dog was loose and had bitten a child, testified that she saw Roberts approach angrily and sought to unhook the animal from a back-yard fence post. But as she unleashed the pet, Roberts began striking the dog in a torrent of 10 to 15 blows. The Akita mix, beaten so severely an eye was dislodged, was later taken to a veterinarian to be euthanized.
Roberts testified that he did not intend to harm the dog and took the bat for protection. But a police officer who later questioned Roberts testified the defendant said he planned to kill the animal when he set out.
Spurgeon dismissed a defense argument that Roberts was acting as an enraged parent when he attacked the dog.
"A lot of people feel the case revolves around child versus dog and which is most important," Spurgeon said in her closing argument. "But that simply is not the issue here . . . because clearly a child would be more important."
Spurgeon said Roberts, rather than informing authorities about the attack, "decided to take the law into his own hands."
But Landgren, telling jurors their decision would make California legal history, pointed to a thicket of television cameras.
"There before you really is the world," he said. "What those cameras are seeking today is justice, ladies and gentlemen."
Roberts said the experience has been shattering.
His son, still not fully recovered from his wounds, wakes up sweating and crying, "Dog!" Roberts said. Roberts said he has undergone psychological therapy and missed work.
"I don't consider myself a vigilante," he said. "I consider myself a loving, caring father who overreacted."