Originally posted in the Sun Sentinel by Paula McMahon.
An 83-year-old man who has served 527 days in prison for animal cruelty after his dog fatally attacked a cat committed no crime and must be set free as soon as possible, an appeals court ruled this week.
Hume Hamilton, of Fort Lauderdale, was sentenced to three years in state prison after a Broward County jury found him guilty of a felony animal cruelty charge last year. The same jury found him not guilty of an animal-baiting charge.
The appeals court moved with unusual speed to throw out Hamilton’s conviction and set him free. It often takes months for appellate courts to issue decisions but the ruling was made Monday, four business days after both sides argued to the panel.
Hamilton has been locked up since July 9, 2012, about a month after his leashed pitbull mix dog Lady Bug attacked Mama, a cat who was sitting outside a Fort Lauderdale office building. The incident was captured on security surveillance videos.
“His conduct did not cross the line into criminal behavior,” the three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in a unanimous decision. “With his dog on a leash, [Hamilton] approached too close to a cat. Once the unfortunate melee began, [Hamilton] kept his dog on the leash and tried to separate the animals. Despite his efforts, his dog killed the cat.”
Hamilton was still in prison in northern Florida late Tuesday but will be freed soon, his lawyer Robert Stickney said.
“This was an outrageous injustice,” said Stickney, who represented Hamilton after he was sentenced. “This guy was completely innocent. The appeals court didn’t throw this out on a technicality; they said he committed no crime.”
Hamilton’s son, Robert Griffin, said his father was “devastated” that the cat was killed but that the three-year prison sentence, imposed by Broward Circuit Judge Carlos Rebollo, was too severe.
“We were very concerned that this could have been a death sentence for my father because of his age,” Griffin said.
Hamilton admitted in court that he let the dog walk up to the cat. He said he was “playing a game” of scaring off cats that his previous dog enjoyed but never took too far. Hamilton’s son said his father was injured trying to separate the animals.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office is considering whether to ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision, spokesman Ron Ishoy said.
“While we respect the appellate court’s deliberations … the surveillance video and a statement by the defendant clearly show that the defendant deliberately put the dog in a position to confront the cat. The jury ruled that that defendant should be held accountable for that poor decision, which ultimately caused the cat’s death. We believe that those jurors were correct,” Ishoy said.
Stickney said the appellate court clearly stated its decision was final and no further appeal would be considered.
Mama the cat was adopted by bail bondsman Wayne Spath’s daughter years ago after the pet started hanging out at the Brandy Bail Bonds office on the 900 block of South Andrews Avenue, Spath said.
“I got a text from one of the prosecutors to tell me the conviction was thrown out,” Spath said. “I don’t understand it. … The guy did it, the video showed everything. … Sure he broke it up, after he set the dog on the cat.”
Spath said his family and his staff were very upset by the incident. Witnesses testified the cat was “torn apart,” her body was shredded and there was blood all over.
Spath said he thought Hamilton should have been ordered to donate money to an animal charity, but his daughter thought Hamilton should go to prison.
“He’s 80-some years old. Maybe he’s learned his lesson and everyone else should learn a lesson from it too,” Spath said.
Stickney, Hamilton’s lawyer, said prosecutors should have used discretion and not filed charges or sought such a severe punishment. He said Hamilton’s efforts to hold on to his dog’s leash while trying to rescue the cat — which included holding the cat down with his foot — were misinterpreted.
Hamilton — a great-grandfather and retired portrait photographer — has coped with prison life remarkably well, his son said. The family and his lawyer were unable to contact Hamilton in prison and did not know if he had been told that he can spend Christmas with his family.
Hamilton, the son of well-known Fort Lauderdale artist Hildegarde Hamilton, is a lifelong animal lover who cared for many pet cats and dogs and whose favorite pet was Bangkok, a 20-year-old cat, Griffin said. Hamilton, a U.S. Army veteran, and his girlfriend had adopted Lady Bug, the dog, from a local shelter, just a week before the attack, he said.
If Hamilton had unleashed his dog “so that it could attack the feline victim,” he would have broken the law, the appellate court ruled. Though his “negligence” was enough to find him civilly liable, the judges wrote, Hamilton committed no criminal act.
The defense said, by law, Hamilton should have been sentenced only to probation.
The judges also remarked on the prosecutor’s conduct at sentencing “where he told the judge that he had a petition with approximately 3,000 signatures from citizens demanding the maximum sentence, we are compelled to note that such conduct is an affront to the very notion of due process of law granted to a criminal defendant in an American courtroom.” The judges wrote that constitutional safeguards and the integrity of the criminal justice system should “exclude influence or domination by either a hostile or friendly mob.”
Stickney said Hamilton was locked up before trial because the animal cruelty charge caused his bail to be revoked on prior battery charges that he had assaulted a girlfriend by cutting her leg with a knife. Prosecutors later dropped the battery charges. Stickney said the woman refused to testify and a defense expert concluded the knife cuts were self-inflicted by the woman.
email@example.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula