The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

February 18, 2014

Court declines cruelty appeal

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

SHARPSVILLE — State Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an appeal in an unusual case in which Superior Court ordered a local judge to increase the penalty against a man sentenced for animal cruelty.

Shannon Clarke, 37, formerly of Sharpsville, pleaded no contest to a charge of cruelty to animals for his alleged harming of a dog placed in his care by his ex-girlfriend, who was entering a five-day drug detox program in March 2011.

The dog suffered “gruesome wounds,” a prosecutor said, that caused some of its skin to come off. The dog’s teeth had been punched in and it was beaten and burned, officials said.

Clarke also abandoned the dog in downtown Sharon.

Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas R. Dobson sentenced Clarke to 6 to 18 months in jail.

Clarke argued on appeal that the judge had no authority to impose a jail sentence, and that the sentence was excessive. He tried to show the sole penalty under state law for his crime was a fine of at least $500.

A three-judge panel of Superior Court said the General Assembly was not specific in the law concerning the killing, maiming or poisoning of domestic or zoo animals as to whether a judge may impose a prison sentence, although it labels the crime a second-degree misdemeanor.

Superior Court judges Correale F. Stevens and Sallie Mundy said in July the default sentencing provisions for second-degree misdemeanors allows a judge to impose a jail term.

Judge James J. Fitzgerald III dissented, saying the fine specified is different than what would be imposed under default sentencing provisions, and the General Assembly specified a fine but not language about incarceration.

The law is ambiguous, Fitzgerald said, adding that the courts work by a general principle that ambiguities should be interpreted in favor of the defendants.

All three judges agreed Dobson was required to impose a fine. The court sent the case back to Dobson to set a fine of at least $500.

Dobson has not acted while the case has pended on appeal.