Behind bars and facing death, Ruby and her daughter, Angel, have plenty of time to ponder their crime — and its unfolding legal repercussions for Orange County.
But they’re probably more focused on their kibble.
Romping nervously in their cement and steel cell, Ruby, a 3-year-old reddish-brown golden retriever, and Angel, a 2-year-old labrador mix, appear unaware of their crime: streaking through an open gate at their fenced Orange County home and chasing a 64-year-old neighbor on his morning walk.
The expected penalty? Death, under current Orange County animal control regulations.
But aided and abetted by two criminal trial attorneys, the two pups may get a full pardon — and the county’s animal control ordinance may be on its last leg.
In a local legal first, Orlando lawyers Steve Mason and Frank Robbins Jr. are donating thousands of dollars in free legal services to challenge the animal control ordinance — and, in particular, that part of the ordinance that doesn’t appear to allow for due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
“We’ll take it to the 5th District Court of Appeal and then to the Florida Supreme Court and, if we have to, to the Supreme Court of the United States,” says Mason.
At the heart of the legal argument is the contention that every dog really must have his day in court.
The lawyers contend the dogs’ owner, Ghislaine Marie Johnson, was denied due process of law — a legal protection most closely associated with two-footed offenders — because she did not have an opportunity to challenge two-sentence affidavits filed by neighbors.
The complaint was made, Johnson was cited by animal control, and the dogs were jailed all on the same day. The next day, New Year’s Eve, an animal shelter employee notified Johnson the dogs were slated for execution within two weeks.
But The Stein Law Group argue that Johnson was never given the chance to rebut the four lines of terse neighborhood testimony about the dogs.
“Without the benefit of cross-examination, Mrs. Johnson, who was not present at the time of the alleged incident, could do nothing to save her dogs,” the lawyers argue.
The county has since agreed that the notice to kill the dogs without a hearing before a quasi-governmental Orange County citizens’ advisory board — the Dangerous Dog Classification Committee — was a mistake.
However, instead of voiding the death warrant and starting from scratch, the six-member panel simply agreed to hold a hearing. There, Mason and Robbins offered a plea bargain: Johnson would pay $300 in fines and $800 in accumulated kennel bills at the shelter, then take her dogs to Nevada where she already has contracted to buy 7 rural acres to live out the rest of her natural life.
However, swayed in part by a lengthy “rap sheet” on the two animals — including complaints against their two brothers, Hershey and Zeus — the board declined the deal, ruling Ruby and Angel must die for their indiscretions, even though they did not bite or physically attack neighbors.
Johnson, who has since moved to Nevada without her pets, broke down in tears. “These are dogs that lay by me at night when I’m in pain or for any reason … and when I cry, they put their heads on my face and lick the tears away,” she told the board.
In fact, even Arcilio Perales, the retired New Jersey housing authority worker chased by the dogs, thinks the pups have been punished enough.
“I don’t think they should be destroyed,” says Perales, who points out the dogs never bit or attacked him. “They should be allowed to go with their owner to another state as she plans to do.
“That would make me happy.”
Robbins and Mason have bought the dogs extra time: Orange Circuit Judge Alice Blackwell White has issued a stay of execution, forbidding the Orange County Animal Shelter to euthanize the animals until she issues a final order in the case.
Even the county, which is standing by the board’s decision, is in no hurry. Assistant county attorney George L. Dorsett, who anticipates the case will go to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach, urged the county to back away until Ruby and Angel’s case has made its way upward through the legal food chain. Counseled Dorsett: “I tell you not to throw the switch.
“Or whatever it is you do.”