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Woman who pleaded no contest to shooting ’Thunder the Wonder Dog’ gets no jail time

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster is condemning as “shocking” and a “travesty of justice” a judge’s decision this week that will result in no jail time for a Caspar woman convicted of felony animal cruelty after shooting her dog on a remote logging road last year in a botched attempt to kill it.

Though grievously wounded, the German shepherd escaped, then survived for a week in the woods before being rescued, nursed back to health and placed in a new home.

The saga of Thunder the Wonder Dog and prosecution of his former owner, Katie Rhiannon Smith, have drawn international attention. And the sentence handed down for Smith on Wednesday by Superior Court Judge Clayton Brennan has only increased that scrutiny, fueled in part by the outrage emanating from the District Attorney’s Office.

Eyster described the sentence as a miscarriage of justice, said it had squandered the time and efforts of his prosecutors, and sent a message to animal abusers that they will not be punished.

“Deterrent? That word and this result should not be mentioned in the same sentence,” he said in an interview. A five-page press release put out by his office after the hearing was headlined “Christmas Arrives Early For Dog Shooter.”

Smith had pleaded no contest to the felony charge and faced up to 36 months behind bars — the maximum under the law, and the term recommended by a county probation officer as part of Wednesday’s court hearing in Fort Bragg. The prosecutor from Eyster’s office, Deputy District Attorney Josh Rosenfeld, sought the same punishment, and dozens of emails read out loud in court by Brennan had sought a stiff sentence.

So it was a surprise, Eyster said, when Brennan invited the defendant to make a motion to have her felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. Smith’s attorney, public defender Frank McGowan, immediately accepted the offer — over Rosenfeld’s vehement objections.

The sentence Brennan imposed moments later gave Smith three years of unsupervised probation — which could be reduced to a single year in January under a new law then taking effect. Smith will serve no jail time, and while she must attend counseling, and serve 500 hours of community service, Brennan denied prosecutors’ request that she be prohibited from owning animals during her probation.

Eyster’s office noted that an appeal of the sentence was underway.

“It is tough to find justice for victims and the community when there are two defense attorneys in the courtroom — one sitting at counsel table and one wearing a black robe,” the district attorney said in the lengthy written statement. “Today’s actions by the coast judge diminish ongoing community and law enforcement efforts to hold animal abusers accountable for their crimes. What kind of message does this send? Not a good one.”

Hundreds of commenters came to the same conclusion in a post about the ruling on the District Attorney Office’s Facebook page.

But McGowan, the public defender in the case, also took to social media, where he said Eyster’s office had overreached in its prosecution of Smith, contending that the Penal Code section under which she was charged “has never before been used to prosecute a person for attempting to euthanize their dog.”

“The DA grossly overcharged this case. Judge Brennan brought this case back to where it should have been from the start,” he wrote on Facebook. He did not respond to an interview request.

Eyster, in the interview Thursday, said that previous district attorneys have, in fact, leveled the same sort of felony animal cruelty charges as his office did in Smith’s case.

If Brennan believed Smith’s actions didn’t constitute a felony, said Eyster, the judge should have said so during her preliminary hearing in October. Because he didn’t, prosecutors spent weeks preparing for a trial. The way Brennan handled the case, said Eyster, “he’s wasted an incredible amount of resources.”

Brennan and Eyster clashed publicly seven years ago over a one-of-its kind program that Eyster’s office offered to marijuana defendants to reduce their criminal charges in exchange for sizable restitution payments.

Though it winnowed court backlogs and netted millions of dollars for the county, the program was controversial, attracting scrutiny from both the county’s civil grand jury and federal investigators, who in 2013 issued a subpoena to the county for related records.

In a court hearing the same year for an accused marijuana grower, Brennan slammed the program as “extortion of defendants.”

Eyster admitted Thursday that tension has long existed between him and the Fort Bragg-based judge, elected to the bench in 2006. The son of a federal magistrate judge, he had worked as a lawyer in private practice and before that as both a deputy district attorney and a public defender.

Eyster said he was grateful that Brennan’s assignments are limited to the county’s Ten Mile jurisdiction based on the coast.

“That way he can do less damage,” he said.

Thunder’s new owner had been tracking the case. She called Brennan’s sentence “beyond disappointing, beyond devastating.”

“You prepare yourself that the case may not go the way you want it to,” said Sheryl, a retiree in Northern California who took custody of Thunder after his recuperation with the Fort Bragg woman who found him, Davina Liberty, who coined his catchy handle.

Due to the notoriety of the case, Sheryl prefers to give only her first name. “I was not prepared for absolutely nothing,” she said of the sentence.

Smith, she pointed out, “is still allowed to own dogs, and she doesn’t have to pay any restitution. I bawled my eyes out. I was in complete shock.”

Like many others, Sheryl also was incredulous that Brennan suggested Smith serve her community service hours by working with the volunteers at the Mendocino Coast Humane Society.

Judy Martin, director of the nonprofit, dismissed the idea out of hand. “We’ve never accepted animal abusers or violent offenders,” she said. “That’s always been our policy.”

Brennan spent the bulk of Wednesday’s hearing reading dozens of letters from people weighing in on the case — the vast majority of them expressing outrage at Smith’s actions. In the end, the judge resisted the tide of public opinion and the recommendations of a probation officer and the prosecution.

Among those outraged by the outcome, there was a shared question: If the crime that Smith committed was equal to the charge she did not contest, why doesn’t she face equivalent punishment?

“The judge is supposed to be impartial,” said Sheryl, “and I don’t feel he was impartial at all.”

Widowed in the last year, Sheryl said her new family member is doing well. “He is thriving, he is playful. We are best buddies,” she said.

Thunder does not bite, beg, chew furniture, or get into the trash. Nor, in the six months they’ve lived together, has he had “an accident,” reported Sheryl, who recently marked his ninth birthday serving him tri tip “with a candle in the middle.”

He enjoys “cow-spotting” — her name for their outings in the car. Thunder sits in the back seat, window down, and is highly excited by the sight of bovines.

“He’s at my feet right now,” said Sheryl on Thursday afternoon. “He is a happy, happy boy.”

“I don’t want any of this to have happened to him. But it did, and I’m grateful I can give him his best life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88.

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