HOMER — A former Jackson County sheriff’s deputy testified in court that four Walker hounds found starved to death on his property didn’t belong to him, and a jury believed him.
Randall Lamar Morgan, 59, was found not guilty of four counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals Tuesday after a Banks County Superior Court jury spent just 25 minutes deliberating his case.
Morgan’s 2007 arrest drew the attention of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which encouraged animal lovers to e-mail the Banks County District Attorney’s Office and push for prosecution. Before PETA lifted a May 2009 action alert, District Attorney Brad Smith was getting up to 30 e-mails a day about Morgan’s case.
The trial lasted two days and included 20 witnesses, including several neighbors who said Morgan hadn’t kept dogs on the property since July 2006, according to his attorney, John Timmons.
Timmons said Morgan didn’t live on the rural property located outside Homer. The defense attorney said someone other than his client placed collars on the dogs with tags that identified Morgan as the owner. The collars were left behind in an area of the property where Morgan previously kept dogs, according to Timmons.
The dead dogs were discovered chained up, emaciated and decomposing by a relative of Morgan’s, who reported the case to authorities. Morgan took a leave of absence from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office during the investigation and later resigned when he was arrested in March 2007, according to Jackson County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy David Cochran.
Timmons said the case had "unusual circumstances," and he didn’t fault authorities for charging his client.
"The central question was not how these dogs died, the central question was, ‘Were these Randall Morgan’s dogs?’" Timmons said.
A jury of four women and two men decided they were not.
Timmons said he did not present a theory as to why someone would put Morgan’s dog collars on the neglected dogs.
Jurors declined to comment on their verdict after the trial.
Smith said later that he was disappointed with the jury’s verdict.
Smith said the case would have been prosecuted regardless of PETA’s involvement. It had been scheduled for trial this month in front of Superior Court Judge Joe Booth before Smith took office in January. Assistant District Attorney Sam Small prosecuted the case.
Timmons said he had never seen an organization apply as much pressure on the prosecution as PETA did.
"I think if the PETA advocates had witnessed the trial, they would have understood the verdict," Timmons said. "Unfortunately, they had the attitude that a person’s accused, therefore they must be guilty, therefore they must be punished."
Martin Mersereau, the director of PETA’s animal cruelty caseworker division, said in a statement from the organization’s Norfolk, Va., headquarters that it was "hard not to second-guess the jury, given the evidence against Morgan."
"We thought it was pretty cut and dried, but we respect the judicial system and must accept the verdict, as bizarre as it strikes us," Mersereau said.
Timmons said Morgan, a law enforcement veteran of nearly 30 years, is hopeful to regain employment with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. While Timmons said his client was suspended for two years without pay, Jackson County sheriff’s officials say he resigned.
Cochran could not say whether Morgan would be hired again, noting that as of Tuesday, Morgan had not reapplied for employment with the sheriff’s office.
"If some positions are open, there could be a possibility," Cochran said.