Sunday, July 8, 2007

It wasn't murder, but it's a death case

Tom Lyons
During the second hour of courtroom arguments Friday, it hit me that, not so many decades ago, human defendants often faced possible execution with less lawyerly attention than Zeus the dog is getting.

And the similarity to modern-day human death penalty cases is striking.

As with some death row inmates I've written about, the arguments for saving Zeus run the gamut from legalistic but logical to far-fetched and grasping at straws. They include charges of unfairness and inequality, and claims of harm that an execution would do to the condemned's family.

Like many a human prisoner represented by devoted anti-execution lawyers, Zeus' new lawyer, Jennifer Dietz, is something of a specialist and is inspired by her beliefs. She loves dogs and leads a Bar committee aiming to improve the state's animal laws.

But whether or not she ultimately gets his sentence reduced, Dietz knows the appeals process is prolonging one German shepherd's life.

The dog, owned and loved by a disabled veteran, has been behind bars for more than 100 days, almost two dog years. And come what may, it seems he will probably stay there for a while yet.

In court Friday, before Judge Phyllis Galen left without ruling, she complimented the 30 or so Zeus supporters for their good behavior in her courtroom.

I've been to executions where there weren't that many protesters.

But then, what's so strange? People on death row have been convicted of murder, and usually other crimes before that. Zeus just bit a guy a few times, in one bad moment, causing a few puncture wounds and some bruises.

The attack was uncalled-for. Zeus bit a Verizon cable installer and took him to the ground as they were being introduced by Zeus' owner. But it was a first offense. The owner, Gilbert Otero, a disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, says Zeus has otherwise lived a blameless life and provided him with much-needed emotional comfort and devotion.

"He knows if I didn't take my medicine," Otero says. And without a smile, he added: "He's like a second wife."

Otero, who wore a black shirt and black beret with a POW/MIA pin to the courthouse, is an edgy guy who tends to stay on guard with strangers. He says maybe his dog picked up on that edginess when the Verizon man was being invited into the house, and overreacted protectively to an arm movement.

The Oteros say they are sure they can prevent Zeus from ever attacking again, if given the chance.

As I told Otero and his wife, Ana, I can't read Judge Galen, who had ordered that the dog be destroyed but is now being asked to grant Zeus a new hearing. She did show every sign Friday of giving the defense arguments a fair listen, and then some.

The best arguments, maybe, were based on at least two somewhat similar cases in the same county, cases that did not result in a canine execution.

But a Sarasota County lawyer is arguing that those two cases are different because, while they involved more serious human injury, there were extenuating circumstances. In one, a woman was bitten while breaking up a dog fight, obviously a hazardous act. In another, a boy was scratched across the eye, not bitten, after he accidentally hit the dog with a fishing rod, according to courtroom statements.

Zeus' biting frenzy was more mysterious.

The county says the damage done was severe enough that the law requires the dog's destruction, because of the multiple bites.

I can't help but hope the Oteros get the second chance they want, but I wouldn't want to be the judge.

These death penalty cases are just too stressful.

Tom Lyons can be contacted at or (941) 361-4964.

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