Jury picked in couple's case of animal cruelty

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. -- A jury of four men and two women has been seated in the animal cruelty trial of Athena Lethcoe-Harman and Jon Harman, the Nikiski couple whose truckload of collies and other animals was discovered Oct. 31 at the Canadian border 30 miles north of Shelby.

Officials had worried that publicity about the case might make it impossible to find an impartial jury from Toole County. The dogs have received considerable attention since they were placed at the Marias Fairgrounds outside of town Nov. 1.

But by mid-afternoon Tuesday, the prosecution and defense had whittled a jury pool of 64 local residents down to six, along with one male alternate.

Opening arguments begin at 9 a.m. today. Jurors will spend the rest of the morning touring "Camp Collie," the 4-H barn where most of the collies are residing until the case is resolved.

The Harmans were charged with 181 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty after officials discovered the animals in the back of the couple's tractor trailer when they crossed the border Halloween night on their way to Arizona.

Authorities dropped one count after discovering that what they thought were 11 cats in the entourage was actually 10.

The Harmans reportedly left their home in Nikiski on Oct. 24 and traveled an estimated 3,800 miles over nine days, apparently without once unloading their dogs or giving them food or water. The animals were crowded into dozens of plastic crates and wooden pens in the poorly ventilated trailer.

By the time they were rescued, the 165 collies, two shelties, two Stabyhouns, one fox terrier and 10 cats were malnourished, severely dehydrated, caked with dried urine and feces and highly stressed, officials have said.

One dog was dead.

The dogs have since been treated for hookworm, ringworm, the intestinal parasites giardia and coccidian, and ear mites.

The Harmans have pleaded not guilty. In an interview with the Calgary Herald, Lethcoe-Harman, 40, claimed to have walked, fed and watered the dogs twice a day during their journey, while her husband caught up on his sleep in the cab of the truck.

Late last week, Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland denied multiple requests by the Harmans to dismiss the trial. Among other things, their attorney, Scott Albers, argued that the community was too prejudiced to treat his clients fairly, that Montana's cruelty statute doesn't cite transportation in its definition of cruelty and that the definition of cruelty is too ambiguous.

Dressed demurely in a black silk top, a below-the-knee skirt and flat pumps, Lethcoe-Harman sat erect at the front table, a faint smile on her face. Her somber-faced husband sat beside her.

The couple was seated as far away as possible from the TV cameras and a newspaper photographer.

Lethcoe-Harman's parents, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, sat in the rear of the courtroom.

The case was moved from Justice Court to the District Court courtroom to handle a bigger crowd, but for much of the morning potential jurors took up most of the seats. A few onlookers also squeezed in, however, among them American Working Collie Associa-tion President Jean Levitt of Vermont, whose organization has donated thousands of dollars and hours' worth of time to caring for the collies. Linda Hughes, director of the Cascade County Humane Society, and regional Humane Society director Dave Pauli also were on hand.

Freeland reminded jurors they need to apply existing law to the case, "even though you might believe the law should be otherwise." Critics have complained that, under Montana's existing statute, all first-time cruelty offenses are treated as misdemeanors, regardless of their magnitude or severity. The maximum penalty for each count is a $500 fine and six months in jail.

The case of the collies has prompted a bill in the state Legislature that would double the penalties for animal cruelty.

While the jury will decide the Harmans' guilt or innocence, it's up to Freeland to impose a sentence. In addition to a fine and-or jail time, she could require the couple to reimburse Toole County for the tens of thousands of dollars spent caring for the animals. She also could require the Harmans to forfeit the animals.

Albers has said he'll appeal the case to district court if the Harmans are convicted, however.

A conviction of animal cruelty would cost Lethcoe-Harman, a breeder, all American Kennel Club privileges for 10 years, seriously crippling her livelihood.

The trial now is expected to last into Friday. Teton County Attorney Joe Coble is helping Toole County Attorney Merle Raph prosecute the case.

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune in Great Falls, Mont.

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