Dog’s death sentence delayed after attention from Supreme Court, governor and a Hail Mary

BECKLEY, W.Va. – Jasper, a 23-pound, four-year-old whippet mix, had his case considered by the state Supreme Court and investigated by Gov. Jim Justice, but by late Friday afternoon remained minutes away from a death sentence.

Jasper had been on a doggie version of death row since a 2015 magistrate court ruling following his biting of a four-year-old girl and an eight-year-old girl three times over several months.

He had been held in semi-isolation at the local shelter ever since, awaiting his fate and growing on the shelter staff and volunteers. They went up the chain – way up the chain – to find a way to get Jasper transferred to a rescue facility where he wouldn’t be around children.

They had almost exhausted their options when, at 4:08 p.m. Friday, just as the local courthouse was ready to close, there was a whirr of life from the fax machine at the Raleigh County Humane Society.

What came through was a stay from a circuit judge, giving new hope and a new chance that Jasper might remain among the living.

This was incredibly welcome news for those who love Jasper at the humane society, which as a no-kill shelter had made an appointment with a local veterinarian to end Jasper’s life.

“He was minutes away. We don’t have a timeframe now, but we know that euthanization will not happen today,” said Teresa Hicks, secretary of the Raleigh County Humane Society board.

“We have been torn up for so many days now. These girls come in to work with him every day. They see him. They know how he is. And to know we were in those final minutes of not being able to come in tomorrow and see him – everyone was just delighted. We laughed, a happy laugh.”

Jasper’s tale is one of the court system, politics and just how much people really, really love dogs.

If you weren’t familiar with Jasper before this, cut yourself a break. Many West Virginians were at first in the dark – and then puzzled – when Governor Justice, less than two weeks into his administration, weighed in on the matter on Thursday.

That’s when, at 4:20 p.m., multiple platforms – Facebook, Twitter, email and the governor’s website – received a message headlined “Statement from the Office of Governor Jim Justice.”

It said: “The Governor’s office has exhaustively looked into the legal proceedings related to Jasper the dog in Raleigh County, and the law of West Virginia is clear: it is not possible for Governor Justice to intervene.

“The Governor recognizes that it is a painful situation for the families, the children, the dog, and the judges involved.

“No one loves animals more than Governor Justice.”

Fact check: possibly true.

The portrait of Justice and his family outside the governor’s office includes five dogs.

Asking the governor to intervene also isn’t totally crazy. Justice has Beckley roots, and, as you know, loves animals. Plus there’s precedent. Back in 1994, then New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman spared the life of a 5-year-old Akita named Taro.

Told on Friday evening that a stay had given Jasper another chance, Governor Justice grinned and said he had done everything possible to determine if he had the power to intervene.

“I tried, I really tried,” Justice said in Beckley, where he had been coaching the Greenbrier East High School basketball team. (If you are not familiar with West Virginia government, the governor who coaches high school basketball is a whole other story.)

The governor’s inability to help Jasper might have been a separation-of-powers issue. The state Supreme Court also looked at the case and decided it couldn’t help.

The Supreme Court didn’t hear oral arguments but it did review filings in the case and, on Jan. 6, released a three page memorandum decision.

It’s not like there aren’t dog lovers among the justices. In 2003, Justice Robin Davis and her husband, lawyer Scott Segal, offered a $2,500 reward, ran newspaper ads and put out 4,000 posters to try to find their 9-year-old golden retriever, Tad.

Just last year, the state Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, spared the life of a pit bull named Tinkerbell who had been set for euthanization after biting an 8-year-old neighbor. The majority reversed a lower court, determining one bite isn’t necessarily vicious and determining the judge had relied too much on breed-specific presumptions to determine euthanasia was in order. Want to read more? The Washington Post has an excellent analysis.

In the Tinkerbell case, the majority that included Davis plus Justices Brent Benjamin and Menis Ketchum, wrote, “The fact that biting is part of a dog’s nature should be a surprise to no one; as nine-year-old witness N.B. aptly noted, dogs have no hands, and so they must use their mouths to take hold of things. Because biting involves sharp teeth and pressure, an object or person on the receiving end of a bite may be harmed.”

Justice Allen Loughry, writing a dissent, said the dog lovers on the court let their affinity get in the way of law and logic.

“Unlike the majority, my love of animals does not blind me to the lamentable reality that some dogs are dangerous, vicious, and inflict serious injuries — and even death — upon innocent victims,” Loughry wrote then.

But in Jasper’s case, the justices said they had to abide by the law. The lower court had ruled that the Raleigh County Humane Society had no standing in the case because it is “merely the physical custodian of the dog,” not Jasper’s owner.

“We thus decline to address petitioner’s sole assignment of error because it was not properly developed on appeal,” the justices wrote.

By this week, Jasper’s supporters were running out of options. The circuit judge in the case, H.L. Kirkpatrick, held a status conference Tuesday and ordered Jasper to be euthanized Friday. “I’ve always been a dog lover, but I love children more than I do dogs and animals,” Judge Kirkpatrick said.

The motion that spared Jasper — at least temporarily — was filed Friday by lawyers representing Jasper’s original owner, Brenda Jeffrey.

Jeffrey, who faced charges of harboring a vicious dog after Jasper’s original 2015 bitings, had chosen not to testify in the original magistrate court hearing when Jasper’s euthanization was ordered.

“Brenda Jeffrey has not yet had an opportunity to be heard regarding the euthanization of Jasper because she was told that she gave up ownership of Jasper when she signed a form when the Sheriff’s office took Jasper from her home following the bite incident,” her lawyers wrote.

There are also some due process issues regarding the dog.

“At the time Respondent Jeffrey signed the form presented by the sheriff, she was not represented by an attorney,” her current lawyers wrote.

She thought she was signing a form allowing Jasper to be quarantined for 10 days, but at the end of the period she was informed that she no longer had any rights to Jasper.

“Clearly, there was no meeting of the minds when Respondent Jeffrey signed the form when the Sheriff’s office took Jasper from her home. Thus, Ms. Jeffrey never had an opportunity to be heard regarding the euthanization of Jasper, but she would like and is hereby requesting that opportunity.”

Her lawyers requested a hearing date, and Judge Kirkpatrick agreed.

Jeffrey was a neighbor of the two girls who were bitten. The girls’ mother, Angela Houck, is upset by the judge’s order, said Gerald Hayden, an attorney for the family.

“The children’s family is a extremely disappointed in the most recent developments regarding the animal named Jasper,” Hayden stated. “The State Supreme Court unanimously upheld rulings that the dog is a danger to society and ordered it to be euthanized.  The order has been delayed in part because of a social media campaign by animal advocates making the dog the victim and the children to be the ones responsible.

“This shameful campaign is littered with misleading information about the character of two small children. The two little girls will continue to be subjects of scrutiny and potential backlash as long as the case lingers. The family prays for an expedited execution of the Supreme Court’s order and to put the children first over the rights of a dog that has been adjudicated as a dangerous animal,”

So the tale of Jasper will have more twists. No one yet knows if Jeffrey hopes to regain Jasper or whether he will be sent to a rescue facility – or if euthanization still awaits him.

But he’s still got a shot, and that’s what matters to those at the shelter who have fought so hard to keep him alive.

“All the staff love him. We’ve not had any problems with him. He’s a mature dog now,” Hicks said. “He’s just like any other dog.”

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