Hung jury in trial on animal cruelty

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

SHELBY, Mont. - Faced with conflicting testimony on the treatment of nearly 200 dogs and cats, a jury here was unable to reach a verdict on whether their owners were guilty of animal cruelty.

Six days of testimony and lawyers' arguments late last month persuaded only one of the six jurors that Athena Lethcoe-Harman and her husband, Johnathan Harman, were guilty. No date has been set for their retrial.

County Attorney Merle Raph charged the Harmans with 181 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. A Great Falls veterinarian testified the dogs had suffered from months or even years of neglect and abuse.

But Lethcoe-Harman insisted that she had fed, watered and exercised the dogs regularly during the eight-day trip from their home in Alaska. She and her husband were moving her collie breeding operation to Arizona when they were stopped at the border crossing on Interstate 15.

Prosecution witnesses testified it would have been physically impossible for the couple to walk all the dogs regularly. But Jan Krekt, who accompanied the Harmans for three days in a separate vehicle, supported her claim. Testifying by Webcam from Holland, he said the Harmans insisted on stopping for several hours each morning to water and exercise the dogs.

Under cross-examination, Lethcoe-Harman acknowledged she lied to officials several times about the number of animals in the trailer, but said she did so only because she was in a hurry to cross the border. She had no receipts for dog food purchases.

Several witnesses testified the dogs were in pitiful condition.

Sheriff Donna Matoon said some were unable to stand. Shelby veterinarian Hardee Clark said many of them were at "the end stage of thinness" and one had died of pneumonia and fumes from the feces in its kennel.

Dave Pauli, director of the Humane Society's Northern Rockies regional office in Billings, said crowding 171 dogs and 11 cats in a 45-foot-by-8-foot, unventilated trailer in unsecured crates with no free access to water for seven days was cruel and unsanitary.

But Donna Miller, who has had sled dogs since 1989, said the trailer's configuration did not strike her as cruel, if the animals were watered regularly.

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