DNA evidence helps free a service dog from death row

Jeb, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois with alert ears and a dark muzzle, was sentenced to death in September.

The Michigan judge who ordered the dog be euthanized said he had no choice. A neighbor had testified that he saw Jeb standing over the lifeless body of his Pomeranian, Vlad. And state law requires that dangerous dogs – ones that cause serious injury or death to people or other dogs – be destroyed.

But Jeb’s family did not believe he was capable of killing Vlad, said Kandie Morrison, who had given Jeb to her disabled father for use as a service animal. This was a dog whose body 80-year-old Kenneth Job relied on to hoist himself up when he fell, she said; a dog that ignored the rabbit he lived with.

“I knew in my heart from day one that he didn’t do it,” she said in an interview.

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Armed with that confidence, Job and Morrison turned to the kind of evidence well known for exonerating human suspects and increasingly used to help animals: DNA. And last week, after a Florida lab determined samples collected from the frozen corpse of the Pomeranian did not come from Jeb, the big dog was sprung from jail.

Michael D. Wendling, the prosecuting attorney for St. Clair County, said the DNA results “didn’t necessarily exonerate Jeb,” but could have come from a third, unknown animal “that also participated in the act.” But it did lead to an agreement between the neighbors that ended the court process, got Jeb home and “was a practical solution to a difficult emotional problem,” Wendling said.

Is this just one more example of the justice system going to the dogs? Not really. Four decades after human DNA was first used as evidence in criminal cases, animal DNA is increasingly being used to help solve offenses such as rape, homicide and animal cruelty. In 1999, a man accused of attempted sexual assault was nabbed thanks to the urine that his victim’s dog had sprayed on his tire. A year later, a triple murderer in Indiana was caught after dog poop found on his shoe was matched to feces at the crime scene. In 2011, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals announced that animal DNA had for the first time led to animal cruelty convictions in New York City, including in the case of a cat whose DNA was found on the umbrella cover a man used to beat the animal to death.

But DNA is also used to catch – or free – animals that are accused of attacks but not caught in the act. In 2001, a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences described the case of a serious dog attack on a girl in Israel to explain how it is done: DNA-carrying dog hairs or saliva can be found on a victim, it said, and a victim’s blood or clothing fibers are often found on an accused dog. In the Israeli case, the mastiff being held on suspicion of the attack was excluded – which saved its life, though the court ordered the dog to serve in the military’s canine corps. These days, investigating officers are often advised to take DNA samples along with doing bite mark analysis.

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Carter Dillard, director of litigation at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the use of animal DNA is also “not uncommon in dog bite cases, and is valuable for exculpating innocent animals.” But he said more funding is needed for its use in animal cruelty cases.

Still, the use of DNA in a case like Jeb and Vlad’s is hardly routine. Wendling said he was not opposed to its use but told Job’s attorney, Ed Marshall, that the county could “not afford to have DNA analysis done on a pet case,” particularly when the Michigan state crime lab has a backlog of homicide cases. The defendants would need to cover the cost, he said.

Marshall, a criminal defense attorney who said he has handled many murder cases involving DNA, said this was his first with dog DNA. But when he learned that Vlad’s body had been frozen, he said, he figured it was worth a shot.

“You’ve got people who’ve been incarcerated for years and years on capital charges, and all of a sudden you’ve got DNA evidence . . . and they let them go,” Marshall said. “Why would it be different for a dog?”

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Jeb had been in custody of the county animal control office since Aug. 24, when he slipped out of his fenced yard in the town of St. Clair while Job, riding a motorized scooter, was leaving through a gate to go fix his mailbox, Morrison said. Christopher Sawa, Job’s neighbor to the north, later testified in court that he came outside and found Jeb standing over Vlad, the Pomeranian, who was lying on his side with his eyes open.

“I opened his mouth because I wanted to do CPR,” Sawa said, according to the Port Huron Times Herald. “I was horrified by what had just happened.”

A veterinarian testified that Vlad’s wounds indicated he had been shaken by a larger animal that could have been a dog, coyote or mountain lion (although the latter are not believed to inhabit the state’s lower peninsula). Other neighbors testified that foxes had preyed on local chickens and that coyotes had been heard in the area, the Times Herald reported.

After receiving a 30-day stay on Jeb’s court-ordered destruction, the defense sent six samples — including an ear tip from Vlad, swabs from three of his wounds and a saliva sample from Jeb – to the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida. In late October, the lab sent back the results: “There is not a match. Jeb is not the dog that killed the deceased dog,” a letter from the lab said.

The agreement reached between the neighbors requires the Jobs to have liability insurance for Jeb and his three other dogs and keep them on leashes when outside the fenced yard. It also requires the Jobs to secure their fence and the Sawas’ fence.

Morrison, Job’s daughter, said her father was overjoyed to get Jeb back. The dog is not a registered service animal, she said, but he’d undergone hundreds of hours of training to help her father, who has a neurological disorder that causes muscular atrophy and requires him to wear leg braces. Jeb, Morrison said, fetches Job’s wife if Job seems ill. The night of his return, he checked on Job every hour while he slept in a recliner, Morrison said.

The dog lost weight while in county custody, where the family was not able to visit him, Morrison said. To build his muscle, Jeb is now on a strict diet of venison and rice.

“He was crying,” when Jeb came home, Morrison said of her father. “He won’t let Jeb out of his sight.”