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Pit bulls' owner gets 15 years to life in prison for fatal mauling

Pit bulls' owner gets 15 years to life in prison for fatal mauling
Defense attorney Al Kim, left, and Alex Jackson listen as Vincent Jackson, not pictured, pleads for leniency for his brother. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

As his hands gripped the sides of the lectern and his voice wavered, Ben Devitt told a Lancaster courtroom about life plans gone terribly wrong.

The 67-year-old retired truck mechanic and his wife had hoped to move to Olympia, Wash. Motivated by their plans to live near their grandson, they had dedicated themselves to improving their physical health. "She was hell-bent on taking care of herself," Devitt said Friday.

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It was that resolve that sent Pamela Devitt, 63, on a morning walk around her Littlerock neighborhood, where she was fatally attacked by four pit bulls.

"Her story shouldn't have ended in such a horrific way," Devitt said just before the dogs' owner was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.

Alex Jackson was convicted of second-degree murder in August after a jury found the 31-year-old knew his dogs were dangerous before the May 2013 attack.

Prosecutors argued that the dogs were involved in at least seven other altercations in the 18 months leading up to the attack on Pamela Devitt.

"His actions in this case show that he has a nearly psychopathic disregard for the lives and well-being of others," wrote Deputy Dist. Atty. Ryan Williams in a sentencing memo. "He simply does not care that his actions might harm or even kill other people who live in this community."

But Jackson's supporters say he was the scapegoat for a long-running problem in the region. A tiny Antelope Valley town, Littlerock is made up of large property lots spread out on rural roads in an area that often serves as dumping grounds for unwanted pets — many of them pit bulls — that residents say create menacing situations.

Vincent Jackson, 33, asked the court in a faltering voice for mercy for his brother and apologized to the Devitt family.

"I know that he feels absolutely terrible about this," he said.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lisa Chung said she believed Alex Jackson did love dogs but based her decision to give him a life sentence on evidence that he initially hid his dogs from authorities after the fatal attack.

She also noted that Jackson had a history of violating probation for prior convictions, which included driving under the influence and resisting arrest, and she dismissed a letter sent to the court by the jury's foreperson a week after the verdict that said one juror had refused to participate in deliberations.

Jackson was also sentenced to seven years in jail for charges of cultivating marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, and possession of a controlled substance. That punishment will be served concurrent with his prison time.

In a nation with about 75 million dogs, fatal attacks are rare. In the last two decades or so, only a handful of dog owners have been tried for murder.

During his trial, Jackson testified that he was an animal-lover who had a soft spot for strays.

"I just wanted to give them a hand to where they didn't have to be out there on their own," he said. "It would prevent them from having to feel as if they have to fend for themselves."

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He said that the dogs were friendly and loving and that he would have gotten rid of them had he known they were capable of killing.

"I feel terrible about it. This isn't anything that I orchestrated or planned, that I wanted to have happen," he testified.

Jackson's attorney said he was not surprised by Friday's sentence. Al Kim said it was a tough case to defend because of the way the prosecution laid out the prior incidents involving Jackson's dogs. He also said the gruesome autopsy photos likely had an effect on the jury.

The jurors were informed through testimony and photographs that Pamela Devitt suffered up to 200 puncture wounds. Patches of her skin were missing and the gashes in her flesh were so deep they exposed bone. Nearly all of her hair was gone and her skull was exposed.

Such descriptions are why Ben Devitt found himself standing nervously in front of the courtroom for Friday's sentencing. "I wanted to put a face on the victim," he said later.

He said he felt a mix of emotions, including empathy for Jackson and a sense of duty to send a message about the responsibility of dog owners.

Appearing unnerved by the day's events, he admitted he was having trouble gathering his thoughts. "My wife was the brains of the relationship. I'm still trying to put it all together," he said.

After his wife's death, he quit his job and sold his house. He now lives with his son and 4-year-old grandson in Washington state.

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