Animal cruelty case ends with deadlocked jury

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. -- A mistrial was declared Wednesday night in the animal cruelty case involving a truckload of collies that was discovered when their Nikiski owners tried to cross the Canadian border into Montana last fall.

Toole County Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland declared the mistrial after a six-person jury reached a deadlock. The four men and two women deliberated for seven and a half hours and announced their decision shortly before 8 p.m.

Only one of the jurors wanted to convict dog owners Jon Harman and Athena Lethcoe-Harman of Nikiski; the other five wanted to acquit the couple, jury forewoman Michelle Edwards said.

"Our job is to determine whether or not we were convinced beyond a reasonable doubt," Edwards told reporters afterward. "You have to do what you feel and know in your heart is right."

The case of the collies drew national attention from hundreds of dog lovers eager to adopt one of the Lassie lookalikes. Defense attorney Scott Albers said his clients would be willing to adopt out about 70 of the collies as long as they knew the dogs are going to good homes.

Lethcoe-Harman would like to keep the remaining 100 or so dogs to facilitate her attempts to breed away collie eye anomaly, a condition that in rare cases causes blindness, Albers said.

U.S. Customs officials found 166 collies, five other dogs and 10 cats crowded into the Harmans' rig the night of Oct. 31. They contacted the Toole County Sheriff's Office, which arrested the Harmans on the recommendation of Shelby veterinarian Hardee Clark. After inspecting the trailer in the wee hours of Nov. 1, Clark said the emaciated and filthy and the crowded conditions in the trailer warranted such a charge.

For the three months since, Toole County has housed the animals at the Marias Fairgrounds, in a metal 4-H barn dubbed "Camp Collie." Volunteers from across the country joined local residents in helping feed, water, exercise and nurture the dogs.

Toole County Attorney Merle Raph said he'll decide in coming days whether it's worth spending county resources to request a second trial.

Freeland seemed shaken by the hung jury. She presided over the -seven-day trial, the longest Justice Court trial in recent memory for this farming community 35 miles south of the Canadian border.

Lethcoe-Harman looked stunned by the verdict. Her face turned red and tears filled her eyes as she left the courtroom with her husband and her parents, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe.

Asked how she felt about the decision, she said, "Weak."

"We're not as happy as we could be," she said, responding to a reporter's question.

Asked what the couple planned to do next, a relieved Jon Harman said, "I'm going to go home and have a beer. This isn't over yet."

Albers said that while he would have preferred a unanimous acquittal, the hung jury sends a message that "what you see and are shocked by" isn't always the full story.

Outside the courtroom, Lethcoe-Harman asked a deputy sheriff if she could go see the dogs this morning. She moved to Shelby a month after her arrest and, escorted by a deputy sheriff, has visited Camp Collie most mornings since.

Three veterinarians testified that the dogs were thin, dehydrated and lying in their own urine and feces when they were discovered in the trailer. Two of the vets -- Clark of Shelby and Kelly Manzer of Great Falls -- said the collies were in such bad shape that more would almost certainly have died had the Harmans continued on to their destination in Arizona.

One pneumonia-ridden dog did die from aspirating E.coli fumes from its own feces, Clark testified.

In closing arguments earlier Wednesday, Raph argued that the case was not about the Harmans or collie eye anomaly -- "it's about the dogs and the cats and the trailer."

Despite two years of planning, he said, the Harmans embarked on their trip woefully ill-prepared. Among other things, they covered 1,600 miles of gravel road in the Yukon with no contingency plan in case the truck broke down.

Early on, the couple stopped to exercise and water the dogs, according to Jan Krekt, a friend who accompanied them the first three days. But after Krekt bowed out and the Harmans crossed over into Canada, the stops became less frequent, Raph said, and the animals suffered as a result.

Responsible animal owners don't behave that way, he said.

"If you don't have the water, you sell the cow," Raph said. "You don't have too many animals for the hay. You take care of the animals."

Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who helped prosecute the case, pointed out inconsistencies in Lethcoe-Harman's story. She told the jury whatever it took to avoid being found guilty, Coble said.

The jury wasn't required to find the Harmans guilty of deliberately being negligent, only that they were negligent, Coble said.

He said she and her husband "put themselves first" and implored the jury to "convict these people of the atrocities that they committed on these animals."

Defense attorney Scott Albers said the dogs weren't as bad off as they were portrayed.

"These dogs were hungry, thirsty and needed a bath," he said.

The animals wouldn't have needed even that if Customs officials hadn't forced the Harmans to pull over for the night, Albers said. He said Lethcoe-Harman toiled all night long at the border station to exercise her dogs and clean their crates, but dozens of dogs that needed to get outside couldn't, and the entire truckload of animals was forced to breathe air clogged with ammonia from their waste.

By the time Lethcoe-Harman, a diabetic, passed out later that morning as she was being driven to the county jail, "she had literally knocked herself out for these dogs," Albers said.

In two thick notebooks filled with pictures of the dogs after they were rescued and details of problems officials found with the animals, Albers inserted information on each dog's pedigree and told the jury the data was "probably the most important piece of evidence before you."

He praised Shelby residents' efforts on behalf of the collies, but said their hard work doesn't give them the rights to the dogs.

"You must let (the Harmans) go and you must give them their dogs back," Albers told the jury. "You must decide: Are these dogs fit and safe with her? If they are, then she must get them back."

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