Stephen Ward, left, and Douglas Aaron West are being tried on animal cruelty charges in Sullivan County Criminal Court. Kacie Breeding photo.
A jury has found two veteran Sullivan County animal control officers not guilty of animal cruelty charges for waiting six days to euthanize an injured cat.
About 55 minutes of deliberations preceded the jury's announcement that they had found Douglas Aaron West, 31, 251 Heyford Drive, Bristol, Tenn., and Stephen F. Ward, 52, 485 Hood Road, Kingsport, not guilty of two counts each of cruelty to animals in Sullivan County Criminal Court.
The case revolved around the question of whether the pair's keeping of an injured cat in a quarantine cage from April 17, 2011, until Ward euthanized it on April 22, 2011, constituted animal cruelty offenses.
At the time of the alleged offenses, the shelter was still under the purview of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office. West, with about a decade of experience, had been promoted to shelter director, while Ward, an animal control officer for 13 years, was authorized to perform euthanizations.
In closing arguments Wednesday morning, Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Julie Canter argued the state had proven that the cat endured pain and suffering during its time in the quarantine cage. She argued West and Ward were also guilty because they had failed to relieve the cat's suffering by either seeking immediate veterinary care or by euthanizing it.
Testimony Canter highlighted in support of her position included that of Dr. Katherine Zimmerman, a veterinarian of 16 years who said the cat appeared to have suffered one or more pelvic and tail fractures and would have been in pain and in need of immediate veterinary care. Zimmerman's testimony was based on her review of a statement from James Sexton, a Kingsport resident whose call prompted West to respond and collect the cat, and a study of the animal's posture in a photo snapped by concerned retired nurse and shelter volunteer Karen Young.
West's attorney, Lynn Dougherty, and Ward's attorney, Rick Spivey, each argued that the state had failed to prove the cat had endured pain and suffering. They argued that, based on their clients' hands-on examinations of the cat, it was injured but not in pain. West and Ward each had previously testified that the cat did not cry out or try to bite them when they had checked it over, leading them to believe it felt no pain from its injuries.
When the jury foreman read the first not guilty verdict — which was for West — the outcome prompted an emotional response from family and friends, including a shout of, "Yes!" The judge's stern warning that any further such disruption would be met with an arrest for contempt subdued the group somewhat, although muffled sobs were still audible. West and Ward were both teary-eyed as well by the time all four not guilty verdicts had been announced.
Afterward, Dougherty said, "I'm glad it's over for Mr. West. I hope he can get back to work soon. He really has dedicated his entire adult life to helping the citizens of Sullvian County and taking care of our animals, and I hope we can get him back to work."
On behalf of Ward, attorney Rick Spivey said, "I'm very pleased with the verdict. I think the jury carefully considered the facts, and my major exhibit A was my client. He's a wonderful man, and he had a hard job, and he did his job and I'm very pleased with the verdict."
Canter declined to comment.
On July 1, 2011, the shelter assumed the title of Sullivan County/ Bluff City/Kingsport Animal Control Center Inc. (SBK Animal Center), which is run by a nonprofit organization. Tom Parham, Kingsport's vice mayor and the organization's newly elected board president, called the jury's finding, "Outstanding."
"On behalf of the SBK, the city of Kingsport and Sullivan County, we're extremely pleased with the outcome. These are long-service employees that have a great work record, who are very sensitive, very caring people, and we think justice has prevailed," Parham said.
SBK Animal Center Director Richard Crino said, "I think it's wonderful. We're anxious to get them back to work."
Parham indicated he was hopeful they could put Ward and West back to work at the shelter right away, while Crino suggested giving them the rest of Wednesday off and bringing them back Thursday morning.
While Crino and Parham each indicated their eagerness for West and Ward to resume their former duties, the question of whether the men wish to do so remains to be seen. Spivey said his client hadn't decided, and West declined to speak on the issue, citing that Dougherty had advised him not to comment.
Since August, West and Ward have been working with the county highway department. Before that, they had been on paid leave since their March arrest.
According to their website, the SBK Animal Center is currently accepting applications for an animal control officer and a shelter tech.