THE BUZZ: Cruelty Questions Persist

By on March 7, 2018

Animal abuse case mired in murky details and limited by lax laws

A still from the video that sparked the investigation.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sometimes, to be found guilty of breaking the law, all one must do is break it. In legal terms, that’s called “strict liability.” Other times, a person can’t be guilty of breaking a law unless he or she intended to do it. Such is the case with Wyoming’s animal abuse statute.

In mid-February, Forest Stearns of Wilson was put on trial for alleged animal cruelty. The charge stemmed from an incident last August at Stearns’s property near Wilson, where a horse named Buddy died after Stearns attempted to put horseshoes on the animal. The incident was recorded by a neighbor, witnessed by several others and investigated by the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. The video depicts Stearns, who owns Stearns Outfitters, tying the horse by its hind legs while outfitted in pack gear. The horse struggles for a moment lying on its side, and then goes still as Stearns walks away. It was found dead later that night.

Stearns was charged with a misdemeanor and the case was tried by a judge; Stearns waived his right to a jury. “Due to the significant amount of media coverage and the significant amount of social media attention the case received, I had concerns about getting a non-biased jury,” Richard Mulligan, Stearns’s defense attorney, told PJH.

Among the “significant amount of social media attention” that turned heads across the country and sparked outrage was a Facebook page now called “Justice for Buddy – Wilson, Wyoming”; multiple postings of the video on Youtube and Facebook and a petition to revoke Stearns’s outfitting license with more than 26,000 signatures.

Knowledge and Intent

According to statute and Wyoming case law, to be found guilty of animal cruelty, it must be proven the person abused the animal knowingly, and did so with intent to cause death, injury or undue suffering. It was lack of the second part—intent—that led Teton County Circuit Court Judge James Radda to deliver Stearns’s acquittal.

“The requirement that a person act ‘knowingly,’ simply means that the defendant acted ‘with awareness, deliberateness, or intention,’ as distinguished from inadvertently or involuntarily,” Radda wrote in his ruling. “Without question, the defendant acted ‘knowingly’ when he handled Buddy on August 8, 2017.” According to Radda, however, the prosecution failed to show intent on the part of Stearns.

In Wyoming, people accused of animal abuse for the first time are subject to a $750 fine, as well as six months in prison, or both. It is an insignificant consequence compared to other states. Neighboring Colorado imposes a fine of $1,000 to $5,000, and/or 18 months in prison. In Georgia, those convicted on first offense animal abuse could face fines up to $15,000, and jail time ranging from one to 15 years, or both. Like Wyoming, the Georgia statute also requires awareness and intent.

Radda based his determination on the fact that Stearns had consulted a veterinarian three times during Buddy’s shoeing, and several times had administered sedative drugs intended to calm the animal during the process. Radda also pointed out the farrier was warned ahead of time that the horse would be difficult to shoe. Two veterinarians who testified also said they believed the horse’s death was inadvertent, that Stearns did not intend to injure or kill the horse, according to Radda’s ruling.

One of the prosecution’s key witnesses sees the matter in a different light. “If you look at the video there are many telling things,” Mary Wendell Lampton, a neighbor of Stearns who recorded the incident in August and testified during the trial, told PJH. “The video itself … should have testified as to the language of intent.”

Varying Accounts

According to Lampton and other witnesses, the horse died around 8:30, or sunset, that evening. But according to Stearns’s narrative, the death occurred around 5:45 p.m. That time discrepancy is a key factor in the case.

Because of their weight, horses generally do not lie on their sides for long periods of time. Doing so can cause trauma to their heart and lungs and blood flow problems. While horses lie down to sleep at times, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how long the animals can stay on the ground before suffering serious injury. But most vets agree time is of the essence when working with a cast horse.

Another neighbor, Lindsey Shaw, testified the animal appeared to still be alive and down on the ground “crying” around 8 p.m. Jason Clapp, the farrier Stearns hired, told the court the horse was still alive around 6:30 p.m. If those times are accurate, it lends doubt to Stearns’s assertion that Buddy was cast for only 40 to 45 minutes. That time frame teeters on the edge of humane practice, according to expert testimonies. Two veterinarians testified that keeping a horse on its side for more than 40 to 45 minutes puts it in danger of injury or death.

Radda, however, pointed out in his decision that Clapp was not wearing a watch and that the time he stated in testimony was only an estimate. He also dismissed Shaw’s testimony as non-persuasive since she admitted she didn’t know the difference between the whinny of a horse and the braying of a mule, of which there was one nearby. Radda also said Lampton’s account of the horse’s time of death was unreliable. Lampton, he said, was in an agitated state which could have impacted her recollection of the events. Radda also said Lampton was biased against Stearns based on an inflammatory remark she made in her home while a deputy was present investigating the animal abuse allegations. According to court documents, she said the defendant “should have his balls and penis cut off and shoved down his throat and that the defendant should be strung from the Wilson bridge.”  

Pointing Fingers

Radda’s assertion that Lampton had something personal against the defendant was not the only accusation of bias during the trial. The tables were turned in January when another judge, Wesley Roberts, conducted a hearing to determine if Radda should be disqualified from trying the Stearns case on grounds he was biased against Lampton, according to court documents.

So the prosecutor in the Stearns case, Becket Hinckley, filed a motion to have Radda removed from the case. “I don’t think I had any other option … because of what Mary Wendell Lampton had told me about how she felt she had been treated in that prior civil matter,” Hinckley said. 

Roberts, a judge in Riverton, held a hearing and ruled that Radda should continue trying the case, Hinckley told PJH.

The incident in question happened a year earlier when Lampton appeared in Radda’s court on an unrelated small claims matter and walked away feeling the judge had discriminated against her. After that experience and months before the Stearns case, Lampton wrote a letter to the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics. “I was in Judge Radda’s courtroom on January 24, 2017,” Lampton wrote in an email to PJH. “Three months later, I wrote to the Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics about what a negative experience it was, and that I had felt discriminated against.

“I am nearly 50 years old and have never felt discriminated against in my life, nor had I ever made a complaint against any person or institution of authority,” she said in the email.

As of press time, Radda had not responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, for the defendant, the case has been a source of significant problems, having caused damages to his personal reputation as well as his business, attorney Mulligan said. “The impact on him has been devastating,” he said. “Some individuals went out of their way to spread false statements that harmed my client, and there will be repercussions. They will find out very soon what they are.” 


[This article has been amended to reflect the Facebook page’s correct name “Justice For Buddy – Wilson, Wyoming,” which is still active. – Ed.]   

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