The savagery of the “sport” can be unsettling even to a veteran criminal prosecutor. But to the promoters of organized dogfighting, illegal dog-vs.-dog matches come down to two words: big money. Belinda Smith, chief of the new Animal Crimes Section of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, told Law Center students that she sometimes has to walk away from the disturbing images captured during undercover operations or seized in raids on video distributors.
Illustrating her talk with videos and slides, Smith warned students in Adjunct Professor Amy Bures Danna’s Animal Law class of the graphic nature of some of the images.
In one amateur video, spectators laugh and smile at the camera as leashed dogs lunge at each other in a makeshift pit before being turned loose for the bloody fight. In another video seized during a raid on a distributor’s house, sex and motorcycles are interspersed with shots of dogs mauling each other. The opening advises: “Warning! Not for the kids.”
Smith noted that it is not illegal in Texas to possess such videos, and watching a dogfight qualifies only as a Class A misdemeanor. The penalties stiffen, however, for more egregious animal abuse and cruelty, or for promoting or profiting from dogfighting. These crimes qualify as state felonies punishable by a maximum of two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Smith is an animal lover with four dogs. Three years ago, she sought approval to handle all animal related cases, which had been a low priority scattered among various assistant DAs. Smith’s bark added more bite to the pursuit of animal-related crimes. In Harris County, animal cruelty prosecutions rose from 42 in 2005 to nearly 160 in 2008. Dogfighting cases went from virtually none to about 90. When District Attorney Pat Lykos took office in January, she took note of Smith’s contributions and created the animal crimes section with Smith as its first chief.
Although there is a new emphasis on prosecuting animal abuse and cruelty cases in the DA’s office, Smith said she is frustrated with a tendency among some law enforcement officers not to take such cases seriously.
One case, which involved domestic abuse as a side issue, ended with a plea bargain because officers left the dog’s body lying in a ditch rather than taking it to a vet as evidence.
“This is the frustration,” she told students. “I had to plead the case out for a lot less than it deserved. We could have made a statement.”
But the frustrations are balanced with satisfactions, too. Smith played a role in an undercover operation that was lauded as the largest covert dogfighting sting in U.S. history.
The 17-month joint operation of the USDA, DPS and DA’s office – dubbed “Operation Dead Game” – netted 59 defendants and more than 90 indictments when it finally ended in Nov ember 2008.
Assistant District Attorney Britni Cooper joined Smith at the Law Center, and she described a current case that spans the animal crimes and identity theft sections. It involves the seizure of thousands of copied videos, including dogfighting and so-called “crush videos.”
The U.S. Supreme Court this fall is expected to take up a case involving the depravity captured in “crush videos,” where provocatively dressed women (generally filmed from the neck or waist down and wearing shoes with stiletto heels) kick, stomp and crush small animals from kittens to frogs. The court will decide if this is protected free expression or something akin to child pornography, Cooper said.
Smith left students with a hackle-raising “family story” about the people who pursue dogfighting and its riches.A few years ago, a Liberty County breeder won $100,000 at a dogfight and was followed home where he was robbed and shot. Smith said the breeder’s wife found her husband bleeding to death on the floor – and opted to call people to retrieve the prized breeding dogs before dialing 911 to save her husband. When paramedics arrived, the dogs were gone – and the shooting victim ultimately died of his wounds.