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A lawyer for Robin Vess, the Oak Harbor woman convicted last April of mistreating dozens of horses on her farm, told three appeals court judges Monday that his client received bad legal advice before her trial and was found guilty on the basis of biased testimony.
Speaking before a panel of judges on the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals in Toledo, attorney Leonard Yelsky argued that Ms. Vess’ trial on 42 counts of animal cruelty was unfair and her conviction should be overturned.
He said Ms. Vess’ lawyer at the time of the trial, Mark Davis, did not explain to his client the possible consequences of not accepting a plea deal offered by the state prosecutor’s office. Under that deal, Ms. Vess would have faced fewer charges and less severe consequences if convicted, Mr. Yelsky argued.
“The attorney simply didn’t explain in the correct measure or detail the 42 counts which this woman was charged with,” Mr. Yelsky told the judges. “This woman was on five medications for mental problems,” and should have been properly informed about the charges against her, he added.
Ms. 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.
She did not attend the appeals court hearing yesterday. Judges Stephen Yarbrough, Thomas Osowik, and Peter Handwork presided over the hearing.
Mr. Yelsky also challenged a decision by Ottawa County Municipal Court Judge Frederick Hany to throw out Ms. Vess’ request for a new trial based on revelations that one of the prosecution’s witnesses had an alleged “vendetta” against the horse owner. Testimony provided by that witness, Arabian Horse Club president Karen Miller, was key to Ms. Vess’ conviction, he argued. He said the prosecution should have informed the defense of Ms. Miller’s potential bias.
“In this particular case there’s no evidence whatsoever that the trial judge knew this,” Mr. Yelsky said. “It could have been earth-shattering.”
But assistant prosecutor Andy Bigler slammed Mr. Yelsky’s arguments, insisting that the evidence to support them was weak and that Ms. Vess received a fair trial. He said there is no proof, other than Ms. Vess’ own statements, that her trial lawyer provided her with insufficient advice. He also questioned whether Ms. Miller has said she had a “vendetta” against Ms. Vess and argued that this would have been inconsequential to the final outcome of the trial even if she had.
“Mr. Yelsky and Ms. Vess have not met their burden of proof,” Mr. Bigler stated.
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, underweight, 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.
Mark Davis, Ms. Vess’ attorney during the animal cruelty trial, said Monday he provided extensive advice to his former client as to the pros and cons of accepting a plea deal. He said Ms. Vess was adamant that she did not want to plead guilty to any charges.
“She was of the opinion that she would rather die than spend a single day in jail so she did not want to accept any kind of plea bargain,” Mr. Davis said.
The lawyer argued that, thanks to his efforts, Ms. Vess’ sentence was far less severe than it might have been and no worse than if she had accepted a plea deal.
“Her defense team worked very hard and gave it our best shot, but you can’t change the picture of the skinny horses, which is what the jury ultimately made its decision on,” Mr. Davis said. “If she’s trying to blame her attorney for having skinny horses, I didn’t feed them.”
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.