Attorney Richard P. Silverstein wanted accelerated rehabilitation (A/R) for his client Alex Wullaert, who confessed to starving, beating, torturing and strangling his dog Desmond to death in his Branford apartment in January 2012. That could mean no jail time.
To get it he had to go judge shopping. Last week his shopping skills paid off.
“I thought it was an A/R case from the beginning,” he told Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan at what would be Wullaert’s 16th appearance in Superior Court on Elm Street.
The judge, a former state prosecutor herself, agreed with Silverstein and granted A/R as car horns outside the courthouse blared support for Desmond, a boxer-pitbull mix, who was 6 years old when he was strangled to death. In her view, she said serious psychological problems should be treated humanely.
The judge said that she had been “assured that any treatment under the two-year A/R program is monitored.”
Later the prosecutor, who wanted jail time, pointed out there was no program under state review for animal abusers, adding that the defendant’s statements about his life’s experiences to the probation department were not reviewed by any independent source.
The judge maintained that “this is not a free pass.” A different perspective was expressed by many who made their views known through social media networks in the aftermath of her decision.
WULLAERT SEEKS A/R
Silverstein first sought A/R nearly ten months ago, in June 2012. At the time he did not seek a psychiatric A/R, just A/R.
However, the stars were not aligned in his favor back then. First he had to deal with state prosecutor Joseph LaMotta, who made it clear he wanted prison time for Wullaert.
Then Silverstein had to confront the judge then hearing his case, Judge Susan Connors. She made it clear she would likely oppose A/R.
So facing opposition, Silverstein withdrew his A/R request as the law allows. Now his aim was to buy time.
He sought continuances while LaMotta sought a plea agreement.
Meanwhile, Judge Connors was rotated out to another courthouse, as happens with judges every September. The case was sent to Judge Keegan, a former state prosecutor herself. She agreed to a number of court continuances and delays.
On the very day of her decision last week, Silverstein arrived in court two and a half hours late. (He said he needed to tend to another case in Middletown.) She did not admonish him or ask why he had kept the court and prosecutor and others waiting for more than two hours. (Click here to read about similar instances.)
Two months ago, Silverstein again sought A/R, but this time with a twist. Now he added psychiatric disability to his client’s application. Over the months both sides had argued about a plea. LaMottta wanted jail time; Silverstein said no. Had A/R not been accepted, the next step for the Desmond case would have been a trial. (Click here to read about that.)
The judge, who has a reputation for leniency, noted that A/R programs were designed by the legislature to help deal with a “fundamentally mentally ill person.” Alluding to the Sandy Hook shootings, she said “I think we are all aware of that in Connecticut right now.”
During the court session, Silverstein discussed his 23-year-old client’s psychiatric difficulties—-aggression, depression, a childhood trauma, which he did not reveal. “It is difficult to say why someone acts the way they did,” he said, adding Wullaert has had “a lot of issues.” The way to handle them, he told the court, is through therapy, not prison.
Micah Rapini mounted a campaign for Desmond (pictured), whom she once mothered at an animal shelter in New Haven. She disagreed with the judge’s ruling, predicting Wullaert’s violence will not end with this case.
Outside the courthouse, before the court session began, Rapini said that if A/R were granted, “I know we will see him again. And I will tell Judge Keenan, ‘I told you so.’”
“Desmond’s Army,: seen here on the courthouse steps, has grown over the past year, gaining sympathizers from across the nation. They are led by Rapini, who started a Facebook page entitled “Justice for Desmond.” As of Sunday, Desmond’s Facebook supporters numbered 6,254.
Rapini and her group, who attended every court session over the past year, used social media to drive their message for a prison sentence for Wullaert. They showed how one case, this one, could raise public awareness about how animal cruelty cases are handled by the court system. By the time the case ended Desmond’s case had reached across the world.
Laura Burban, the director of the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, who knew Wullaert when he did community service at her shelter after a sentence by another judge, had a key role in finding him after Desmond’s body was discovered in Madison. At the time Wullaert was living in Branford.
“This was certainly not the way we all hoped that this case would turn out; however it was not unexpected,” she told the Eagle. “We as a state need to look closely at animal laws and determine which laws need to be changed in order to effectively prosecute cases like these. …The animals that have crimes committed against them cannot speak .We believe necropsy and vets reports should really speak on their behalf and help to ultimately determine sentences. We certainly appreciate and commend Attorney LaMotta for the terrific job he did with this case and we know he spent a lot of time working on it.”
The case also showed how a lawyer can game the criminal court system. This happened because LaMotta sought prison time, not often a position a prosecutor takes in an animal cruelty case.
LaMotta saw this case as winnable.The police had charged Wullaert with an intentional felony and the suspect had confessed to the crime.
After the judge ruled, LaMotta praised the actions of the protestors, saying they acted with dignity. “There is nothing we can do to get Desmond back, but hopefully what we did today gives attention to this [issue]. This is a small part of a much bigger problem. It happens constantly,” he said of escalating cruelty cases. The protestors thanked him for this work.
THE STATE’S CASE
As Burban suggested, LaMotta let the necropsy report serve as the voice of Desmond. He opened his argument describing Desmond’s broken teeth and hemorrhages on his head, ribs and stomach. The necropsy report showed that Desmond had been severely beaten, starved and kicked for months.
The dog’s stomach contained segments of gauze, paper, fabric and plastic tissue, items found in a bathroom. He talked of the blood in the dog’s kidneys. Police said Wullaert told them he routinely kicked and “spanked the dog quite hard,” sometimes with a shoe because he did not want him to bark. He also locked Desmond up in a small bathroom in his apartment in Branford for 12 hours a day, sometimes longer, State Animal Control Officer Todd Curry said. In his confession to Madison Police Officer Kimberly Lauria, Wallaert said he fed the large dog “a cup of rice a day,” explaining that he did not have the money to feed him. (At least part of the time, Wullaert was working.)
LaMotta went on to say that A/R under the statute was not intended for cases involving a “serious felony” and this case was not only serious but an intentional felony as well, one that carried a five-year prison term. If ever there was a case that deserved prison time, LaMotta suggested, this was the one.
He argued that even though the state’s probation department had recently decided that Wullaert qualified for the A/R program under a psychiatric disability claim, the state did not agree. In order to obtain A/R, LaMotta told the judge the statute can be invoked only if the crime is “not of a serious nature.”
This case, he argued, was serious enough to engage the Madison and Branford police, who investigated it because Wullaert had dumped Desmond’s body in a lake in Madison after he admitted to killing Desmond in January 2011. Both departments pursued the case with state and Branford animal control officials until they found Wullaert’s girlfriend and then Wullaert himself.
When LaMotta got the case, he evaluated it and decided it was strong enough to actively pursue. Not all prosecutors do that. This case was different for a variety of reasons. For one thing, LaMotta hoped a judge would consider the felony 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.
Over the last nine years, the police across the state have brought only 42 cases of malicious animal cruelty under this, the more serious felony statute, the one that applies to Wullaert’s case. Had LaMotta argued to Judge Connors, the outcome might have been different.
But here he was, nearly a year later, arguing against A/R before Judge Keegan. After he finished, Judge Keegan abruptly called a lunch break, thus dividing the legal arguments into two segments. Her decision gave Silverstein an additional hour to prepare.
THE JUDGE RULES
After listening to Silverstein, Judge Keegan ruled from the bench, saying she felt strongly that “serious psychological problems should be treated humanely.” The judge observed that there were “elegant” legal arguments made on both sides.
She noted that Wullaert was 23 and had “no criminal history,” a criterion for admission into A/R. Wullaert stood with Silverstein in the well of the courtroom. He did not say a word, nor was he asked to.
Wullaert has been arrested several times for violent behavior, including an attempt to strangle his girlfriend. Each time either the charges were dropped or his record was wiped clean after he fulfilled court-ordered community service. He began to beat and torture Desmond, whom he and his girlfriend had owned for years, after she took their baby and left him. She told police he had attempted to strangle her. She later dropped the charges.
Judges are not permitted to take into account prior criminal cases if they do not lead to conviction. So with a so-called clean record, Judge Keegan agreed that Wullaert was eligible for psychiatric A/R.
And while killing an animal is serious, the judge observed, she clearly did not believe it was a felony of a serious nature as the statute requires.
“This is where a court’s discretion must be exercised,” she said in court as supporters for Desmond began to hold hands and to cry.
The judge observed it was up to the court to make this kind of decision in order to “balance the defendant’s rights while insuring the safety of the society.” Then she granted the A/R request.
As she announced a decision that Silverstein had spent months trying to get, Desmond’s supporters, seated in the front row and wearing T-shirts with the dog’s likeness, stood up as one and walked out of the courtroom. Horns continued to blast outside.
They left before the court proceedings ended.
IS THERE A TREATMENT PROGRAM?
LaMotta then informed the judge that “there doesn’t appear to be any treatment program” that fits Wullaert’s actions.
He then asked the judge to ask the Court Support Services Division (CSSD) and the probation department “to look into treatment programs specifically tailored to animal violence.” The judge said she would make the inquiries.
Wullaert now awaits a treatment program as yet to be determined. Under the statute, there are conditions he must meet over the next two years of treatment, presumably as an outpatient, in order to fulfill the conditions of a psychiatric A/R ruling.
The judge said that the court depends upon the CSSD to confirm a defendant’s eligibility and assessment of a person’s mental health condition, as the statute provides.
In an interview afterward, LaMotta noted that this process is flawed because whatever Wullaert told CSSD and probation “is all self- reported.”
“Everything the [CSSD] does is based on an evaluation that he [Wullaert] gave them. There is no independent evaluation,” the prosecutor noted, no outside confirmation of the information Wullaert provided, he said.
He wondered aloud if the probation department would be able to find a program for those engaged in animal violence. “I am not aware of such a program,” he said “and I have been doing this for a long time.”
In the end, as he thanked Desmond’s supporters in an adjacent room, he said the case was not over.
If something happens and Wullaert becomes ineligible for the program, then he will seek an order to have the file unsealed and the case placed on the trial list.
But if after two years Wullaert completes the program, then the charges will be dismissed and his court record in the Desmond case will be erased, just as was done in his prior criminal cases.