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Breaking the "Rules" 

If every criminal prosecution depended upon an eyewitness or confession in order to secure a conviction, we'd be in real trouble. In fact, felonies and misdemeanors are routinely tried on circumstantial evidence alone. Drug defendants are often prosecuted for possessing paraphernalia associated with drug use, for example. Some murder cases are prosecuted -- successfully -- without the victim's body.

It is difficult to understand, then, why an eyewitness or confession is needed to prosecute dogfighting charges. But that's District Attorney Eddie Jordan's explanation for the decision by his office to decline charges against 16 people arrested Feb. 1 in what promised to be a major dogfighting bust ("Losing Fight," July 8). Jordan's office also dropped the other charges against all 16 people -- including flight from an officer and criminal trespass.

At the time of the arrests, local animal rights activists and other concerned citizens believed that a major blow had been delivered to dogfighters. Louisiana's dogfighting law, one of the strictest in the nation, makes it a felony to possess or own fighting dogs or to train a dog to fight; the maximum penalty is a $25,000 fine and 10 years in prison. Just being present at a staged dogfight is a misdemeanor. It's also illegal to own certain animal training devices in combination with dogfighting paraphernalia or with dogs that appear to have been fought or trained to fight.

According to dogfighting experts, evidence found the night of Feb. 1 should have been enough to convince a jury an organized match was taking place at a trucking company in a remote part of eastern New Orleans. That night, police answered a call from the landowner, whose neighbor had told him strangers were on his property. When the officers arrived, everyone fled. Police eventually collared 16 people.

At the scene, officers discovered a blood-spattered fighting "pit." They also found several necessary objects for a dogfight, such as veterinary supplies and a "break stick" used to separate fighting dogs. A pit bull on the site had scars typically associated with dogfighting, and police recovered more than $5,000 in cash. Yet, this evidence was not enough to convince the district attorney's office that it had what it needed. "We were not rejecting the case because we were afraid of dogfighting cases," Jordan stressed to Gambit Weekly last week. "We will prosecute every case we conclude has merit."

Not many prosecutors are savvy to the evidence that points to organized dogfighting, say officials with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Last month, HSUS experts came to Gretna to educate animal control officers, police and prosecutors about dogfighting, an activity with formative ties to Louisiana. Organized dogfights follow regulations called "Cajun rules," so named because they were written by Lafayette police chief and dogfighter Gaboon Trahan in the 1950s. Among other regulations, Cajun rules specify the protocol to follow if police arrive and break up a fight. "It's built right into the rules," HSUS animal fighting expert Eric Sakach told 80-plus officers at the workshop. "They've already banked on you guys being here."

Dogfighting is not simply an animal cruelty problem. People who engage in dogfighting are often involved with other crimes -- including drug dealing, gang activity and possession of illegal firearms. Det. David Hunt -- a Columbus, Ohio, vice officer who actively pursues dogfighters and who spoke at the HSUS workshop -- says that evidence seized during some of his dogfighting busts was sufficient to prosecute suspects on federal organized crime charges.

Other significant social problems arise from dogfighting. Many people bring children to the gory matches. Also, a dog trained to fight is a public nuisance. Some dogs have mistaken small children for animals.

Arrests and convictions of dogfighters should not be rare occurrences. "There's no love lost for the kind of people who get involved in this kind of brutal, savage activity," Jordan says. We applaud him for sending a representative to the HSUS workshop to learn more about the illegal blood sport, and we hope this reflects a higher commitment to future dogfighting prosecutions. The New Orleans Police Department also sent several officers to the workshop and has named Lt. Heather Kouts as its liaison with the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Last week, Louisiana SPCA executive director Laura Maloney and chief humane officer Kathryn Destreza, along with Kouts and Louisiana Highway Patrol Sgt. Emory Tumulty, met with Jordan. Maloney says she believes Jordan's office will try to work with the NOPD, state police and the SPCA to bring dogfighters to justice. The three groups plan to collaborate on at least one pending case involving a suspected dogfighter.

The criminal justice system should treat dogfighting like any other serious crime. Donald Beaman, who owns the eastern New Orleans property where the February arrests were made, says he's angry that the DA's office dropped all charges. "Now they can go free to do this on someone else's property," he says. No doubt they will try -- it's outlined in their rules.

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