What should be the criminal penalty for angrily swinging an 8-pound puppy from the end of a leash like a lasso, then kicking the dog hard enough so it skids across asphalt, and then twice smacking the Chihuahua-dachshund mix across the face?
OK, remember your answer.
Now, what should be the penalty for driving while drunk, hitting a car that overturns twice and critically injuring a man who dies six months later, likely as a result of his injuries?
I hope you gave more time to the drunk driver than the dog abuser, though these days it doesn’t seem to be such a clear-cut call.
In a recent court case, Orange County prosecutors wanted Verne Joseph Strong, 57, of Newport Beach, to be convicted on felony animal abuse charges and sent to state prison. Because he was on parole for a commercial burglary conviction, Strong’s sentence could have been longer than normal for dog abuse.
But an Orange County Superior Court judge allowed Strong to plead guilty last week to one misdemeanor count of animal abuse and sentenced him to time served — 317 days in jail — and three years of informal probation.
Nearly a year in jail for yanking around, kicking and hitting a puppy seems about right in my book. (By the way, the puppy, Meanie, is doing fine at an animal shelter in Westminster.)
I don’t blame the Orange County district attorney’s office for trying to get a stiffer sentence. The story got some media play, and it doesn’t hurt the political image of Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to be tough as a chew bone on puppy abusers.
But the justice system’s treatment of Strong brought to light a double standard that I’m seeing with increasing frequency: the tendency to treat people who hurt animals more harshly than people who hurt human beings.
Take, for example, the local case of Steve Galiher, a featured pastor on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which has studios in Costa Mesa (the wedding cake building on Bear Street across the San Diego (405) Freeway from South Coast Plaza).
Last year, he drove drunk — about three times over the legal limit — down the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway at an estimated 85 mph and crashed into a car, which overturned twice and severely injured a 70-year-old man.
Six months later, the victim, who had been a swimmer and tennis player prior to the crash, died of pneumonia. It was a result, his family said, of injuries sustained in the accident.
Earlier this year, Galiher pleaded guilty to two felony counts of driving under the influence. The OC Weekly reported that on the day of sentencing, the victim’s son began his remarks to the court and Galiher by displaying graphic pictures that showed his father’s injuries, which included four broken ribs, a broken arm and leg, and pins to hold together his vertebrae.
The son ended his testimony by telling Galiher, “You … disgraced the tenets of Christianity. As a Christian, I pray that the Lord show you mercy, but I pray that the state of California does not.”
It turned out that the state showed plenty of mercy. Galiher, who had spent four months under house arrest and 90 days in a rehab clinic prior to sentencing, received five years’ probation and was ordered to pay restitution and stay away from alcohol during his probation.
Even without connecting the victim’s death to the accident, Galiher could have received three years in state prison for his crimes. Prosecutors had only asked for another four months of house arrest, according to the Weekly.
Maybe if Galiher had tied a puppy to his bumper, prosecutors would have gone for a state prison sentence.
The most famous example of this double standard can be found in the NFL. Quarterback Michael Vick, who tortured and killed pit bulls, served 21 months in prison and two months of home confinement for his crimes. He also was suspended from the league for two years and forced to declare bankruptcy.
Vick’s punishment struck most people as appropriate.
But then there’s NFL wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who in 2009 drove while drunk and killed a pedestrian in Miami Beach. Stallworth pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to all of 30 days in jail and was released after serving 24 days. He was also suspended from the NFL for one year.
There was little outrage at Stallworth’s wrist slap for causing a man’s death, or for being allowed to continue his football career, after a brief interruption, with the Baltimore Ravens.
The pathos that put a pet’s life on equal or greater footing than a human’s is a fairly recent phenomenon (I couldn’t see our Founding Fathers dressing up their dogs in human-like clothing and taking them to gourmet doggie restaurants), generated by many factors (high divorce rates, for one) that have attracted the attention of academics.
From polls, we do know that many people consider their pets as valuable as their children; that the most popular dog names are now the human-sounding Jake, Chloe and Bella (hardly the Spikes and Spots of yesteryear); and a third of pet-owning married women say their pets are better listeners than their husbands — seriously.
Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog, Trouble.
I’m all for protecting puppies such as Meanie or pit bulls who find themselves with a sadistic owner and prosecuting the animal abusers to the full extent of the law — anyone who can harm a helpless animal is likely capable of much more.
But let’s save the harshest punishments for crimes against people. Those victims are only human.
WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is email@example.com.