Nikiski couple's trial date set for May 27

Posted: Monday, May 12, 2003

CHOTEAU, Mont. -- A retrial of accused collie abusers Jon and Athena Harman of Nikiski has been set for May 27 in Anaconda, Mont., nearly 300 miles south of the Canadian border where authorities discovered the dogs in a tractor trailer last fall, a justice of the peace announced Friday.

Teton County Justice Pete Howard said he'll decide today whether to narrow the focus of the trial to the condition of the nearly 200 collies and other animals the night they were found.

He's moving the new trial far away from Shelby, Mont., where the dogs have spent the last six months, and from Great Falls, Mont., where the case has been covered extensively.

The Harmans' 170 collies, three Stabyhounds, two shelties, one fox terrier and 16 cats were relocated May 4 to Great Falls. They'll remain there until the case is resolved.

Toole County sheriff's officials arrested the Harmans on Nov. 1 after U.S. customs inspectors discovered what then numbered 166 collies, five other dogs and 10 cats in the couple's tractor trailer as they tried to cross the Canadian border into the United States.

The Harmans were headed to a new home in Arizona. The animals had traveled in the trailer 2,240 miles over nine days.

The Harmans have pleaded not guilty to 181 counts each of misdemeanor animal cruelty. They face a maximum of six months in jail and-or a $500 fine for each count.

The couple's first trial in January lasted seven days but ended in a mistrial when a six-person Justice Court jury in Toole County failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Howard took over the case at the request of Toole County Justice of the Peace Janice Freeland.

The retrial will wrap up more quickly if the prosecution has its way. Toole County Attorney Merle Raph and Teton County Attorney Joe Coble are asking Howard to disallow testimony about Athena Lethcoe-Harman's breeding operations, her efforts to weed out a collie eye disease and the kennel she and her husband built for the dogs in Arizona.

The defense called several witnesses forward via Webcam during the first trial; the prosecution is arguing against that this time around. But defense attorney Scott Albers argued strongly in favor of letting the jury travel to Great Falls to see the Harmans' dogs, saying Lethcoe-Harman's rapport with the animals represents the "heart and soul" of their case.

In fact, Albers will try to subpoena the dogs and have them transported to Anaconda if the jury is not allowed to see them in Great Falls, he said. Howard, who's not an attorney, asked Raph and Coble to research whether he can quash such a move.

Lethcoe-Harman, a diabetic, wants to be able to bring a service dog, Panache, into the courtroom with her in Anaconda. Howard will rule on that request today, too.

He rejected a final attempt by Albers to have the case dismissed entirely on grounds that the collies' identifications have gotten hopelessly confused in the six months they've been in Toole County's custody.

Carol Bradley is a reporter for the Great Falls Tribune.

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