When Alex Wullaert appeared in Superior Court Friday on charges he tortured and strangled his dog Desmond to death, the prosecutor thought a plea was probable or failing that a trial date would be set.
But Wullaert’s defense attorney said it was back to square one, only this time with a twist.
Once again, Wullaert’s attorney, Richard P. Silverstein, sought an accelerated rehabilitation (A/R) program for Wullaert, 23. If approved by the prosecutor and the judge, Wullaert would serve no prison time if he completes the program. In the best-case scenario for him, he would hold no criminal record and his case would be sealed.
This time the A/R category at issue adds a new dimension to the case. The twist is that this A/R application centers on Wullaert admitting to a “psychiatric disability.” The next court hearing is scheduled for March 8 at 2 p.m.
In recent months, Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph LaMotta, Silverstein and the judge have discussed a range of prison time possibilities within a felony plea deal. The original plea that LaMotta offered, five years in prison, suspended after three, was rejected. Silverstein wanted no jail time. LaMotta said after court ended Friday that he had expected a plea or trial discussion Friday. He got neither.
Instead Silverstein told the judge Friday he again wanted A/R. He is allowed by law to seek the A/R status even though he withdrew his request last time. This A/R is based on a “psychiatric disability, which means a mental or emotional condition, other than solely substance abuse, that has substantial adverse effects on the defendant’s ability to function, and requires care and treatment,” according to the statute.
Wullaert arrived in Judge Maureen Keegan’s courtroom at 2 p.m., the time set for his appearance. He sat in the back row and no one spoke with him. About a dozen of Desmond’s supporters, all wearing “Justice for Desmond” T-shirts sat, in the front row. They were quiet and waited for the proceedings to begin.
About 25 minutes later, court got underway. During a brief hearing with LaMotta and the judge, Silverstein gestured toward the Desmond group, loudly telling the court officers: “I don’t want any of them bothering this kid.” Then he informed Judge Keegan he would be handling a murder trial next week, adding as he stared at the Desmond group, “and that courtroom will be empty.”
Silverstein, along with other criminal defense attorneys in New Haven, have had difficulty understanding the commitment of Desmond’s army, a group that for the past nine months has protested on the courthouse steps against the murder of the 6-year old boxer-pit-bull. They have been out there in the heat, the rain, the snow and freezing weather. They have taken their places in court. Why, some criminal defense lawyers have asked, don’t they show up for cases involving a human murder victim?
One answer may be that in a murder case, the victim’s family usually does show up for trial. They are there to represent the victim. They speak at sentencing if they want to. These demonstrators, led by Micah Rapini, one of Desmond’s foster mothers at the New Haven Animal Shelter, say they are, in effect, Desmond’s family and his voice. It is up to them, they say, to bear witness. And what they want, they say, again and again, is prison time for Wullaert. They also want the animal cruelty laws enforced.
Desmond’s Army, seen here on the courthouse steps, has grown over the past nine months, gaining sympathizers from across the nation and the world. They are led by Rapini, who started a Facebook page entitled “Justice for Desmond”. As of Sunday Desmond’s Facebook supporters numbered 5,868.
Accelerated Rehabilitation, including psychiatric A/R, is possible only if the crimes or violations are “not of a serious nature.” Last August, when A/R was first on the table, it was clear that LaMotta would oppose A/R and it seemed likely that a prior judge would too. So Silverstein withdrew his A/R motion in time for the annual judicial rotation that would enable Silverstein to send his client’s case to another judge.
For Desmond’s Army, the dog’s starvation, daily beatings and spankings, which Wullaert confessed to police he administered, are serious and intentional. The charges reflect Desmond’s last months of life as well. While most animal abuse cases are misdemeanors, this one is a felony, a rare occurrence.
Obtaining A/R depends in part on the victim’s agreement, but sometimes even if a victim agrees to the program, a state prosecutor will not, and will ask the judge for jail time instead. In this case, Desmond has no “family” to speak for him except for Desmond’s Army.
First the judge must consider the crime itself, in this case, a charge not often brought in this state because obtaining the evidence is difficult. Under this statute (CGS53-247(b) “maliciously and intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding or killing an animal is punishable by a fine up to $5,000 and up to five years imprisonment, or both. This is a far more serious crime than mere animal cruelty; which holds up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine or both.
The State’s Office of Legal Research (OLR) compiled statistics on animal cruelty cases from 2002 to November 2011, over nearly nine years, and found there were 3,208 cases of cruelty to animals on the lesser felony abuse of animals statute and just 42 cases for the more serious charge, that of maliciously and intentionally killing an animal.
The problem for LaMotta and Judge Keegan is how to deal with a man who has no visible criminal record but who has been arrested in the past for violent acts—-none of which led to an actual conviction. When Wullaert was asked at a prior court hearing if had ever been convicted of a crime, he rightly said no.
He has been arrested in the past and has managed to beat the criminal charges. According to the A/R statute, the judge is entitled to have access to the youthful offender records of the defendant and “may consider the nature and circumstances of the crime with which such person was charged as a youth.” Those records are not publicly available.
In addition, in 2009 Wullaert was arrested on an assault charge, one for which he served community service at the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford. While the details of that crime are not known, whatever he did was wiped clean after he was given probation.
In February 2011, Wullaert was again arrested in East Haven on charges of strangulation in the third degree, unlawful restraint in the second degree, disorderly conduct, interference with an emergency call and assault in the third degree. His live-in girl friend and the mother of his young daughter was the complainant, police said. It is believed the girlfriend later dropped the charges but not before taking Wullaert to court seeking child support.
It was Wullaert’s girlfriend who, along with Wullaert, raised Desmond. She returned him to the New Haven shelter in January, 2011, some months after their child was born. When Wullaert went to the shelter in April, 2011, he did not tell officials of his prior relationship to Desmond. Desmond, then 6, was delighted to see him, those there that day have told the Eagle.
Wullaert adopted Desmond and took him to his Branford apartment, where over the next nine months, police said, he beat him, starved him, locked him up in a small bathroom for 12 hours a day, and then one night strangled him when the confused and disoriented dog peed on him.
Laura Burban, the director of the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter in Branford, knew Wullaert in 2009 when he did a court related community service at her shelter for the now expunged assault case. She told the Eagle in a prior interview that the necropsy (or autopsy) report should speak for Desmond.
“I just don’t think that when you kill an animal so maliciously there should be no consequences. He did this with malice and the necropsy report backs that up. He has admitted to this crime. The report speaks volumes. Broken bones, malnourished, tortured. I think Desmond is talking from the dead.”