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Published: Tuesday, 3/18/2014 - Updated: 9 months ago

Michigan dog case goes to appeals

Monroe County judge issues temporary stay of execution

BY ALEXANDRA MESTER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Monroe County Circuit Judge Michael LaBeau speaks during a hearing for two Sylvania Township dogs accused of killing two show pigs in Bedford Township. The dogs were found in the barn. Monroe County Circuit Judge Michael LaBeau speaks during a hearing for two Sylvania Township dogs accused of killing two show pigs in Bedford Township. The dogs were found in the barn.
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MONROE — A judge in Monroe County Circuit Court on Tuesday issued a temporary stay of execution for two Sylvania Township dogs that were found guilty of killing pigs. The action allows their owners to take the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Judge Michael LaBeau issued the ruling during a brief hearing. The dogs, owned by Janni Juhasz, 49, and her daughter, Katalin, 22, originally had been scheduled to be put to death Friday in accordance with a 1919 Michigan law.

The Juhaszes own a husky mix named Bugger and a husky named Nala. The dogs were found May 2 inside a barn on Whiteford Center Road just north of the Ohio-Michigan line and a little more than a mile from their home.

It was there that two show-quality pigs owned by Stephanie Sonnenberg had been killed and a third was injured. Ms. Sonnenberg said she saw the dogs attacking the surviving pig and said one tried to attack her. She was able to restrain the dogs until Monroe County Animal Control arrived to take custody of them.

Nala and Bugger have been kept at animal control ever since, and the Juhaszes said they have not been allowed to visit them.

Ms. Juhasz, who attended the hearing, said afterward that she had been nervous because of a delay while the attorneys representing her family and Bedford Township discussed matters in the judge’s chambers. But she was relieved when the stay was formally granted.

“He made a good decision,” she said. “We’re on our way to appeal.”

The Juhaszes’ dogs, Bugger, left, and Nala are accused of killing two show-quality pigs and injuring a third, all owned by Stephanie Sonnenberg of Bedford Township, in May, 2013. The Juhaszes’ dogs, Bugger, left, and Nala are accused of killing two show-quality pigs and injuring a third, all owned by Stephanie Sonnenberg of Bedford Township, in May, 2013.
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Mrs. Juhasz was unable to attend the hearing because she was working, but told The Blade by phone that she also was feeling positive, particularly as the next step will take place in the state court away from the local area.

“I feel good about this, that we’re out of Monroe County now,” she said.

Judge LaBeau said the appeal, which was filed Friday by the Juhaszes, will give the state court a chance to review the 95-year-old law if it agrees to take the case.

“This is a very old statute,” he said. “As I recall, no one was able to find any appellate decisions on the statute itself, so I think it’s probably a good idea that it does get reviewed by the court of appeals if they’ll grant the leave.”

Philip Goldsmith, the township’s attorney, said its position on the requested stay was neutral.

“As the court is aware, the township is in the case only because we are required to be by statute,” Mr. Goldsmith told the judge. He later added that, “Contrary to popular belief, the township does not have the legal authority to call off the action that’s been put in place. It would have to be the real parties to this action, the owner of the livestock and the owner of the dogs.”

Judge LaBeau also strongly encouraged the Juhasz and Sonnenberg families to work on coming to an agreement outside of court. He and Mr. Goldsmith both said they would be willing to facilitate that process if they are able.

“I would again, as I did the last time we were in court, urge these people to try to see if you can resolve this,” Judge LaBeau said. “People are spending a lot of money and a lot of time, and it’s just a shame you can’t come to some kind of resolution here that’s acceptable to everyone.”

Sajid Kahn, attorney for the Juhaszes, and J. Henry Lievens, attorney for the Sonnenbergs who was present in the courtroom to observe, both indicated a willingness to discuss a potential amicable resolution. Mr. Lievens, however, said he was concerned that negotiations between the sides would be used against the family in social media, for example, a Facebook page created in support of Nala and Bugger.

“We’re receptive to [negotiations], but every time that has come to pass, it has been used to embarrass the Sonnenberg family,” he said.

Ms. Juhasz said she and her mother do not moderate the Facebook page and cannot control what people say about the case.

Mrs. Juhasz said the family’s homeowner’s insurance company will handle the negotiations for potential financial compensation to the Sonnenbergs for the loss of their pigs.

Tuesday night, at least a dozen supporters of the Juhaszes and the dogs were at the Bedford Township board meeting, but only Mrs. Juhasz was allowed to speak. Another person went to the microphone but did not get far in trying to address the board.

“We were all very quiet until they said we couldn’t speak,” said Katalin Juhasz, Ms. Juhasz’s daughter. “That’s when everyone said, ‘Wait a second! Our First Amendment!’ ”

Greg Stewart, township supervisor, said all supporters of the dogs were allowed to speak at a previous meeting. The microphone was restricted Tuesday because the matter had reached the appellate level, beyond township control.

“If we didn’t do our job right, they’ll tell us. That’s what appeals are all about,” Mr. Stewart said.

Katalin, left, and Janni Juhasz, own the two dogs accused of killing show pigs. The mother and daughter are fighting the case. Katalin, left, and Janni Juhasz, own the two dogs accused of killing show pigs. The mother and daughter are fighting the case.
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Mr. Stewart said that he warned a person who attempted to speak after Mrs. Juhasz that the comments would be welcomed so long as they had to do with township governance and what the township board has a say in.

Mr. Stewart called a recess, and the board members left their places and the room. Two sheriff’s deputies were summoned.

“I have the authority to ask somebody to sit down, and if they don’t, have them escorted out,” Mr. Stewart said.

The Juhaszes and their supporters left. “I’m pretty much assuming if we hadn’t left, they would have arrested us,” Ms. Juhasz said.

Mr. Stewart said the state law that forced the dogs’ conviction “really forces us to do things we quite frankly didn’t want to do.”

“I wish them well in getting the law changed,” Mr. Stewart said. “It’s an old law. I don’t think it’s good for anyone. It’s not good for the farmers or the townships — it’s an unfunded mandate — and it’s not good for the dogs.”

Staff writer Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.

Contact Alexandra Mester: amester@theblade.com, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.



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