The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court shot down the appeal of Ernest Paragallo’s animal cruelty conviction on March 31, apparently clearing the way for his return to prison. There’s nothing odd about that. Appeals are standard procedure following a criminal conviction and most appeals are denied.
There are a couple of interesting twists, though. The first involves the issues raised—or not raised—in the appeal.
The welfare of Thoroughbred horses at Paragallo’s Center Brooke Farm became an issue in August 2009, when authorities raided the Greene County, New York, farm and seized 177 horses. Paragallo subsequently was charged with 35 separate counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. He waived his right to a jury trial and a year later he was convicted on 33 counts of "failing to provide proper sustenance to an animal," a misdemeanor violation of New York law.
Paragallo was sentenced to 33 consecutive one-year terms, which sounds like a lot of time in prison but actually amounts to a lot less. Because of the way the law in New York (and in most other states) treats multiple misdemeanor convictions, Paragallo’s maximum sentence was only two years, plus fines and restitution. He appealed the sentence, and in June 2010 the appellate court stayed execution of the judgment pending the outcome of the appeal. The stay meant that Paragallo was out of prison while the court considered the merits of his appeal.
There is a popular misconception about the appeal process following a criminal conviction. Although criminal defendants have a legal right to at least one appeal, that right to appeal does not guarantee an entirely new trial. Instead, appellate decisions are made "on the record," which means that courts do not hear testimony or review evidence that was not presented at trial. Whether the jury (or in Paragallo’s case the trial judge) got it "right" when deciding guilt and imposing sentence almost never is the issue on appeal. Instead, appellate courts are primarily concerned with legal errors that may have been committed by the judge who presided at the trial: were there errors in jury selection, or in the admission or exclusion of witnesses or testimony, or were the defendant’s constitutional rights violated?
Paragallo’s appeal raised just one issue, and it had nothing to do with the trial court’s finding of guilt on the animal cruelty charges. Did Paragallo accept the guilty verdict? It's hard to say for sure, but the appeal only questioned the sentence imposed by the judge.
Before a defendant is sentenced, New York law requires preparation of a presentence report that includes "all information that may have a bearing on sentencing." Paragallo claimed that the presentence report prepared in his case "improperly advocated for a specific outcome, contained a victim impact statement prepared on behalf of the horses by an unidentified individual, and improperly referenced prior uncharged incidents that were never substantiated." Paragallo’s sentence was flawed, according to the appeal, because the presentence report was "improper and inflammatory."
The appellate court disagreed. The trial judge deleted from the report some of the supposedly objectionable material upon the request of Paragallo’s attorney, the appellate decision explained, and there was no evidence that the "County Court relied on any improper or prejudicial statements in imposing sentence."
The second odd thing about the proceeding was the fact that the presentence report apparently included a victim impact statement made on behalf of the horses that were seized at Paragallo’s farm. Technically, at least, crimes are offenses against the state. The plaintiff in Paragallo’s case, for example, was "The People of the State of New York." Victim impact statements prior to sentencing are not uncommon when the victims are human, but a victim impact statement on behalf of a neglected or abused animal is a novel approach.
The trial court did not consider the equine victim impact statement in the presentence report when deciding on Paragallo’s sentence. Considering the status of animals as personal property, a question that drew a number of well-considered comments after last week’s blog, that was the correct ruling.
Should victims of animal abuse and neglect—the animals themselves—have an advocate in court?