The animal cruelty trial of Nebraska horse owner Jason Meduna has attracted a lot of attention recently. More than 200 seriously malnourished and neglected horses were removed from Meduna’s 3-Strikes Ranch, ironically promoted as a haven for rescued mustangs, almost a year ago. In January, a Morrill County jury found him guilty on 145 separate counts of abandonment of an animal and cruel neglect.

Conviction is a necessary first step in the enforcement process, but it is only half the battle. Meduna’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 23. Then we will know whether the punishment meted out by the Morrill County District Court actually fits the crime.

Animal protection laws in Nebraska were strengthened across the board a few years ago, and in 2008 the state criminalized "horse tripping," a bizarre and totally pointless "entertainment" where a horse’s legs are lassoed and the animal is thrown to the ground. Nebraska now is one of 19 states ranked as "top-tier" by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national organization that rates animal protection laws across the country.

Section 28-1009 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes defines abandonment or cruel neglect of an animal as a Class I misdemeanor, unless there is "serious injury or illness or death." When that happens, the offense becomes a more serious Class IV felony. Based on press reports and graphic photographs, Meduna’s case certainly deserves the felony designation. Maximum sentence for a Class IV felony in Nebraska is five years in prison, or a $10,000 fine, or both.

Meduna is eligible for a cumulative sentence of 725 years (five years for each of the 145 counts), with a fine totaling almost $1.5 million. There is no guarantee that Meduna (or any other convicted defendant) will receive the maximum, however, and such a sentence would be something of a surprise. Nebraska law establishes a maximum sentence and fine, but the same law does not set minimums for either time in prison or monetary fine. That decision is left up to the sentencing court.

Nor does the law require that sentences for separate offenses be served consecutively. Whether prison sentences are served consecutively (one after the other) or concurrently (all at the same time) is a matter of discretion for the sentencing court. Meduna could receive the maximum five-year sentence for each of the 145 counts of abandonment and neglect, but serve only five years (maybe less than that with "good time" credits and the possibility of parole) if the sentences are served concurrently.

One thing that is not discretionary is a Nebraska requirement that anyone convicted of a Class IV animal cruelty offense be ordered not to "own, possess, or reside with any animal" for a minimum of five years and a maximum of 15 years after the date of conviction. This sounds good, but the triggering date should be release from prison rather than the date of conviction. Depending on the length of the sentence, the period during which Meduna is prohibited from owning an animal could expire while the defendant is incarcerated.  Violation of the ownership restriction is a misdemeanor.   

Footnote: Many of the mistreated and neglected horses on Meduna’s ranch reportedly were mustangs acquired for a pittance through the Bureau of Land Management’s wild mustang management program, a scheme that has drawn a lot of heat lately. The Restore Our American Mustangs Act (ROAM), federal legislation to overhaul the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last summer. Similar legislation has stalled in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where it was referred last August.