DALLAS — Tuesday morning, the final two suspects pleaded guilty to the burning death of Justice the dog.
In April, 2012, Darius Ewing, Richard Valentine, and two other men were charged with dousing the four-month old lab tarrier with lighter fluid and lighting him on fire.
Valentine got a 15-month jail term. Ewing will be sentenced later. The other two suspects already pleaded guilty.
Those who treated Justice say it was the worst burn case they’d ever seen.
“It was just heartbreaking. He was in a lot of pain,” said Michelle Shipley of City Vet Oak Lawn.
“We do have cases, from time to time, burns and road rashes and things like that. He’s, by far, the worst I’ve seen,” said Christine Lutz, a vet tech who also works at City Vet.
“The fact that, just for kicks, just for fun, these four guys decided to pour lighter fluid on him, set him on fire, watch him run around, screaming in pain… It is… There’s just a level of sickness there that is not explainable,” said animal activist Jonnie England.
Assistant District Attorney David Alex expected Ewing would get up to ten years, charged with animal cruelty with a deadly weapon. That would be a felony charge. Tuesday morning, the day before it was set to go to trial, Alex got a surprise from the defense.
“They came to me and said, ‘We’ll take five years.’ It’s half of the maximum, so I was surprised,” said Alex.
Alex says he was happy with the compromise. The defense told him they were happy about it. However, in a ‘meeting of the minds’, he says Judge Larry Mitchell voiced concern over the amount of jail time.
“Before he came out on the record, he did say he thought five years was too much, but then he agreed to accept the plea,” said Alex.
Suddenly, the whole case fell apart because of two words. The indictment says Ewing used “ignitable” liquid. The confession said “flammable” liquid.
“[Judge Mitchell] never once mentioned he had a concern about the two words,” said Alex.
He did once on the record in court. According to Alex, Judge Mitchell said, because of the two words, the state did not prove use of a deadly weapon.
“Even if you didn’t think that ‘flammable liquid’ and ‘ignitable liquid’ is the same, you still have both of them saying ‘fire,’” said Alex.
“To me, they mean the same thing,” said England.
England was in the courtroom Tuesday, too.
“It was very clear to me, and the others in the courtroom, that the judge was not being an impartial judge,” said England.
“For this judge to make this decision on his own and make this decision is just irresponsible.”
England feels Judge Mitchell had his own agenda.
Alex chose his words a little more carefully.
“Ethically, I’m not going to stand here and criticize the judge, but, clearly, he expressed to me and to the defense that he thought five years was too much. That’s where we ended up with something a lot less than five years as being the maximum. You can do the math,” said Alex.
Now, the longest sentence Ewing can possibly receive is two years. Alex plans to submit a motion for reconsideration next week. If it’s not accepted, he’ll likely appeal.
Judge Mitchell has not returned our request for comment.