Where’s Alex? That was the buzz in the Elm Street Courthouse as protestors stood on the courthouse steps on a cold, windy, rainy morning holding signs to honor the life of a 6-year-pld boxer-pit bull dog named Desmond. His owner, Alex Wullaert of Branford, has admitted to police that he strangled the dog.
Wullaert, 23, was supposed to appear in court before a new judge by 10 a.m. Tuesday. Usually he and his attorney Richard P. Silverstein arrive together. But there were no Alex and no Silverstein when court began.
The prosecutor, Assistant State’s attorney Joseph LaMotta, was there and at one point discussed Alex’s absence with the judge in her chambers.
Alex had been due in court on Oct. 30 to appear before Superior Court Judge Maureen M. Keegan, who handles pretrial cases in courtroom C. The Oct 30 date was canceled because of Superstorm Sandy.
On his last court appearance on Sept. 13, Wullaert and Silverstein rejected a prosecution offer that held a stiff prison sentence for the felony of intentionally killing Desmond, a dog he and his girlfriend raised. Three weeks after the girlfriend brought Desmond to the New Haven Animal Shelter on January 19, 2011, she brought criminal charges against Wullaert for attempting to strangle her and she took out a restraining order against him. It was after these events that Wullaert went to the shelter to reclaim Desmond without telling animal authorities of his prior relationship to the dog.
Asked by reporters in a court hallway if he had agreed to a continuance of yesterday’s date, LaMotta said he had not. Nor, apparently had Silverstein alerted LaMotta to the possibility of a continuance. Nor had Silverstein asked for a continuance before the judge. LaMotta never did get an answer on why Wullaert wasn’t in court at 10 a.m.
One of the leaders of the protest, Micah Rapini, asked Silverstein in a courthouse hallway if he told his client to stay home. “No,” he said.
At 10 a.m., courtroom C began to fill up with clients and lawyers all waiting for the judge to begin the courtroom day. But the judge did not take the bench. At 11:30 a.m Wullaert entered Courtroom C, wearing a grey jacket, a tie, a striped shirt and tan cotton trousers. Meanwhile LaMotta and Silverstein talked in the hallway.
At 11:40 a.m. Judge Keegan walked into court. The first case called was Wulllaert’s. With that, Wullaert walked to the well of the courtroom where he joined Silverstein, who had come back to the courtroom after handling a case in a nearby courthouse. LaMotta was also present.
“December 11,” the judge said restating an agreement worked out between the attorneys. “To be continued.”
It took less than 10 seconds to conduct a court session delayed 90 minutes.
The first time LaMotta offered a plea in the case was before Judge William Holden in September. Wullaert and Silverstein rejected the plea, which would have carried a five-year jail sentence suspended after two years. It was at this juncture that Wullaert entered a not guilty plea and the case was moved to Judge Keegan’s courtroom.
Wullaert and his attorney have the right to argue against the LaMotta offer. They also have the right to discuss other offers with the prosecutor and the judge. A new offer may well be made to Judge Keegan. If the case is not settled in part C than it could go to trial at New Haven Superior Court on Church St., where most felonies are heard.
As cases move through the court system, plea offers may change, Lamotta said in an interview. He predicted that at Wullaert’s Dec. 11 court date, there will be more information placed on the record and there might even be some movement in the case.
Should Wullaert accept a plea at some point in the process, then a pre-sentence investigation will take place to prepare a report that will assist the judge at sentencing. That report typically takes about eight weeks to produce.
Early in the case, Silverstein, the defense attorney, had sought accelerated rehabilitation for Wullaert. Besides strangling Desmond, then 6, Wullaert has admitted to repeatedly punishing him: hitting the dog with a shoe, starving him and locking him a small bathroom for 12 hours a day. Last January, after the disoriented Desmond peed on him, Wullaert admits he went into a rage and strangled Desmond to death with the dog’s own collar.
The accelerated rehabilitation (A/R) program is designed to keep certain criminal cases out of the court system. Obtaining A/R depends in part on the agreement of the prosecutor. LaMotta, by his plea offer in September, has made it clear where he stands.
LaMotta noted yesterday outside the courtroom that Wullaert may apply for A/R at any time. But he also observed that he thought that “that ship has now passed.”
Rapini said she felt good about yesterday’s court action.
“There we were standing in the rain, freezing. But we are going forward,” she said as she explained to supporters the seemingly inexplicable court delays. She praised LaMotta as he sought to figure out the difficulties presented by the defense in court yesterday.
“Joe fought for us,” she said.