As a roomful of cat lovers looked on, a jury Thursday convicted a Westminster man of torturing his kitten by hurling it at a wall and nearly drowning it in a tub.
The verdict ended a weeklong trial anxiously followed by animal activists across Orange County who were outraged by the beating last year of Henley the cat.
"Somebody's got to stand up for the kitty, and that's why we're here," said Claudette Tarra of Orange, who owns five cats. "It's been a difficult trial to listen to. It just makes you want to stand up and yell."
Witnesses described the August 2000 incident as horrific.
Police were called when neighbors heard an animal crying in agony. They told police that they watched as Timothy Alan Freeman, 45, slapped the cat, dunked it in water and then hurled it against a concrete wall. Officers found the cat in Freeman's cupboard, barely breathing and comatose.
Henley eventually was nursed back to health and placed in a new home, where its owner says it is doing fine.
Some of the dozen cat supporters who attended the trial in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana burst into tears when the verdict was announced. Others pumped their fists in victory. For them, the case was something of a cause celebre, coming a week after a San Jose man was convicted of throwing a bichon frise dog named Leo into traffic after a fender-bender with the dog's owner.
Freeman, a physician's assistant, faces up to three years in state prison.
During the trial, defense lawyer William Bruzzo argued that the abuse never occurred and that Freeman was merely washing the kitten. He also suggested that the neighbors' accusations were the result of tensions between them and Freeman.
"This appears to be part of a neighborhood feud that boiled over," Bruzzo said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Alison Gyves said, however, that Freeman "could never explain how a wounded cat wound up in the cupboard."
Freeman, who is free on $10,000 bail, is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 3. Gyves had asked that Judge William L. Evans order Freeman held and remove his pet dog from his home, but the judge refused.
"I haven't seen anything in this case that tells me he's a threat to the community," Evans said.
The judge, however, said he wants Freeman's dog examined by an animal control officer and said he would order it removed from the house if there were signs of abuse.
Henley's new owner, Bridget Simec, said the cat weighs 11 pounds and only its nose and tail show damage; both are bent.
"He's great," Simec said. "He's lying in the sun right now."