By the first week of February, the Dallas District Attorney’s Office will have its first full-time assistant district attorney dedicated to prosecuting criminal acts of cruelty to animals. By the end of the month, a full-time investigator also will be on board, according to David M. Alex, the felony trial bureau chief.
The idea for an animal-cruelty unit arose about six months ago after he prosecuted a few grueling cases; one involved a burned dog and another involved a cat abandoned inside a wall, says Alex, who will supervise the new unit.
He says those cases helped him recognize that animal cruelty cases require specific prosecutorial skills, such as the ability to suss out prospective jurors who don’t understand the criminality of animal cruelty.
“The biggest hurdle when I try these cases is that there are people who don’t really see these as criminal cases. During voir dire, you have to almost invite those opinions; you have to allow people to voice those opinions and then make sure that those people don’t wind up on your jury,” Alex says.
Alex initially was pessimistic about the prospects for animal-cruelty unit for Dallas county prosecutors, due to the county’s budget crunch. But then he discussed the need with former Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, whose term ended Jan. 1. She was enthusiastic and offered to contribute personally half the salary of a prosecutor or $40,000 to the cause, Alex says.
Then on Dec. 11, 2012, the Dallas County commissioners approved an outlined Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the nonprofit organization Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a group established in 2005 to assist local law enforcement. The MOU allowed Safer Dallas to raise funds, about $200,000, to cover the annual cost of an animal cruelty unit in the Dallas DA’s office. The nonprofit hit its goal about two weeks ago, Alex says.
He and Dickey, Alex says, developed the plan of having Safer Dallas raise money for an animal cruelty unit in the DA’s office; the group has collected money for the Dallas police in the past. Alex says he doesn’t believe any precedent exists for an non-county organization to pay a prosecutor’s salary.
No hard numbers are available on the number of animal cruelty cases in Dallas County, Alex says. Safer Dallas stated in a Nov. 30, 2012 release that 2,500 hundred cases had been reported.
Alex says, “I’ve unofficially tried to keep track as they came through the system, but my numbers are very shaky. Guessing, I’d say we’ve probably handled over 100 cases in the courts,” in the past two years.
Alex expects those figures might double within the first year the new unit is established, but then they should taper off. He hopes the mere establishment of the unit “will give people confidence to report the cases.”
ADA Debbie Smith, a seven-year-veteran of the office who has spent the past four years prosecuting white-collar criminal cases, will transfer to the new unit as its coordinator. An investigator will also transfer. In the past year, Smith had “volunteered her time,” Alex says, to work on animal-cruelty cases.
Smith says the support for the new unit pleasantly surprised her. Like Alex, she expects the case load “to grow exponentially in the first two years,” with the creation of the new unit.
Smith says she spoke with a Harris County ADA, who saw an immediate spike in cases after her office appointed her full-time to prosecute animal-cruelty cases. Sara Marie Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney’s office, says that prosecutor recently moved into the special victims’ crimes bureau, rather than continue to operate as a stand-alone animal-cruelty unit, and will continue to handle animal-cruelty cases full time. “But this way she’ll have more support than she did before,” Kinney says.
Smith is enthusiastic about getting her own unit started. “I am passionate about these cases,” she says.