An appeals court is set to hear arguments Monday on whether an Oak Harbor woman convicted of neglecting dozens of horses on her farm received a fair trial.
Robin Vess was found guilty in April, 2010, on 42 counts of animal cruelty for failing to properly feed and care for her horses. She was sentenced in Ottawa County Municipal Court to 42 days in jail, five years probation, and $8,711 in fines and court costs.
Those penalties have been stayed pending the outcome of the appeal filed by Ms. Vess' attorney, Leonard Yelsky, on Oct. 22. Monday's hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Ohio Sixth District Court of Appeals.
The Humane Society of Ottawa County removed the horses from Ms. Vess' farm the night of Jan. 29 after receiving two complaints about the animals' condition. During the trial, several witnesses testified that the horses were found to be desperately weak, skinny, and dehydrated. The defense denied the charges, arguing that the horses were adequately cared for and some were thin because of age or medical condition. At the same time, the defense told jurors that Ms. Vess suffered from mental health problems and financial difficulties.
Ms. Vess' arguments for overturning the verdict center around two key complaints. One is that her attorney during the animal cruelty trial, Mark Davis, allegedly provided her with inadequate advice. The court documents state that Mr. Davis did not inform Ms. Vess of the consequences she could face if found guilty on all 42 counts of animal cruelty. He allegedly discouraged Ms. Vess from accepting a plea deal from the state prosecutor's office under which most of the charges against her would have been dropped if she pleaded guilty to three counts.
"Had she, Robin Vess, been fully informed of the ramifications of being found guilty of 42 counts of animal cruelty, Vess would have seriously considered accepting the state's plea offer to plead guilty to three counts of animal cruelty," reads a statement in the defendant's documents filed with the court of appeals.
Neither Mr. Davis nor Mr. Yelsky could be reached for comment Thursday. Mr. Yelsky did not represent Ms. Vess during the trial. The defendant also challenges Ottawa County Municipal Court Judge Frederick Hany's refusal to grant her request for a new trial. Ms. Vess made the request based on allegations that one of the prosecution's witnesses, Arabian Horse Club of Greater Toledo President Karen Miller, had a "vendetta" against her.
The appeal documents also question the reliability of photographic evidence of the horses' condition, and testimony provided by two veterinarians, Dr. Irene Lavigne and Dr. Leslie Avery.
Assistant Prosecutor Andy Bigler said this week he believes Ms. Vess' trial was fair, but added that she has a right to appeal.
"Any person has a right to appeal if they feel errors were made," he said. "They argued what they believe the law said and we argued what we believe the law said, and the court of appeals will say what they interpret the law to mean."
Humane Society spokesman Bruce Theobald expressed relief the appeal will finally be heard after several months of waiting.
The fact Ms. Vess has not yet served her sentence points to inadequacies in the justice system, he said. He doubted her conviction would be overturned.
"I think the thoughts ... she's basing her appeal [on] do not have merit," Mr. Theobald said. "I think Judge Hany bent over backward to make sure it was a fair trial."