A reader took issue with my statement last week that the various animal rights/animal welfare factions should be able to agree that "we need tougher animal protection laws." We don’t need "tougher" laws," the reader said, we need "better" laws. It’s hard to argue with that. Better does means improvement, after all, and everyone should be striving to make tomorrow better than today—for ourselves, for each other, and for our animals.

It’s also difficult to argue with the suggestion that tougher animal protection laws are meaningless until officials start enforcing the laws that already are on the books. Enacting tough laws is an exercise in futility, meaningless if the people who are charged with enforcing the laws are either unable or unwilling to do so.

West Virginia appears to be a case on point.

On September 11 Berkeley County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Myers executed a search warrant at Hidden Meadows Equine Rescue, a tax exempt facility operated by Mary O’Brien. What he found was appalling, horses in miserable condition with little or no access to food or water. A few were dead, others had to be euthanized. Deputy Myers seized more than 50 horses and two cows that day. O’Brien was arraigned on October 7 and charged with 56 counts of animal cruelty. Bail was set at $280,000, which O’Brien apparently could not pay. She stayed in jail.

Two weeks later, to the astonishment of just about everyone, the case was over. After what must have been painfully brief negotiations with Assistant County Attorney Kimberly Crockett, O’Brien was allowed to enter a plea of guilty to one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty. She was fined $1,000 and sentenced to time already served in jail, a total of 10 days. The other 55 counts were dismissed. Outrage followed.

What happened?

West Virginia boasts strong animal protection laws. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which ranks the states’ laws every year, includes West Virginia among the "top tier" jurisdictions. It is the advocacy group’s highest category. For misdemeanor animal cruelty West Virginia Code Section 61-8-19 provides for a maximum jail term of six months and a fine of $300-$1,000 for each count. Subsequent misdemeanor convictions are punished with a sentence of up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $3,000 for each count. Convicted offenders lose all property interest in the animals and are liable for the costs for animal care after seizure. A judge is required to prohibit a convicted defendant from "possessing, owning, or residing with" an animal for five years and psychological counseling and anger management courses are available options.

The problem was not the law. The problem apparently was a prosecutor with no interest in doing what prosecutors are supposed to do.

Equine veterinarian Christine Bridges was among the people called on to assess the condition of the horses at Hidden Meadows and then to provide care for them. She showed up at the court house prepared to testify at a preliminary hearing only to learn that the case already had been resolved by O’Brien’s guilty plea. Clearly disappointed by the rush to judgment, Dr. Bridges was quoted as saying that the negotiated plea was based only on the arrest warrant and that the prosecuting attorney did not review the case file or photographs and did not consult with the veterinarian or with anyone else familiar with the situation. "She prosecuted a case without even looking at the evidence," Dr. Bridges said.

Like them or not, plea deals are a fact of life in criminal courts everywhere. Judges, prosecutors, defendants, and defense attorneys (me included) rely on them. What is most disturbing about this one is a statement attributed to the prosecutor. In her defense, Kimberly Crockett said, "We are not trying to minimize the seriousness of the offense. This is a serious offense, but the plea offer is consistent with other resolutions in other cases. I think you will find it is even more harsh."

If that is the attitude of prosecutors across the state, whether West Virginia’s animal protection laws are strong or weak, good or bad, is totally irrelevant.