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home : opinions : opinions August 17, 2017

6/9/2017 7:29:00 AM
Citizens deserve answers, information in dog neglect case

The prosecution file is shut tightly on a recent decision by an Oneida County assistant district attorney not to charge the owner of a dog rescue operation who was accused of serious animal neglect and abuse, but the assistant DA, Mary Sowinski, needs to open it and let the sunshine in.

If she doesn't, district attorney Michael Schiek should step in and do so.

To be sure, prosecutorial files are exempt from the public records law. Still, district attorneys can release those files at their discretion, and the Oneida County district attorney's office has historically done so.

That makes the decision to seal this one all the more mysterious, and it leaves many people interested in this case feeling justifiably upset.

Feelings are certainly running high on both sides of public opinion. There are many who believe strongly the operator of the animal shelter, Stephanie Schneider, should be prosecuted for what they believe are egregious acts of abuse and neglect, while others vociferously defend Schneider's work with rescued dogs.

Because it is such a hot-button issue, the prosecutor should share whatever facts she has that we don't, so that we can be better informed, and she should share with us her own decision-making process so we can see if the district attorney's office made a reasoned and impartial decision.

This is especially so given the facts that we do know about the case.

Here's what we know. Back in February, the Oneida County Sheriff's Department arrested Schneider, the owner and co-founder of It Matters To One animal rescue in Sugar Camp, after earlier seizing 39 dogs in her care.

And the department made a big deal out of it, even issuing a press release about the conditions the department claims the dogs were in: "She was arrested for failing to provide food or water, mistreating animals, and obstructing law enforcement," the release states.

Captain Terri Hook of the department said past employees, volunteers, and citizens who had adopted or were considering adopting dogs from the group had reported information about possible neglect to the dogs. She also said a veterinarian had concluded one dog had endured severe neglect for months, and Hook said the department found other animals in distress.

So the first question is, with such seemingly strong evidence as that offered by the sheriff's department, how in the world can the district attorney's office not bring charges?

If the evidence is as strong as the department said it was, what is going on in the district attorney's office, or in the prosecutor's head, to let such cruel crimes go unpunished? The community is rife with rumors and speculation; the district attorney's office should tell us its reasoning once and for all.

On the other hand, was the evidence not what it appeared to be? Did the sheriff's office build a false case for public consumption? If that is the case, the public needs to know that, too.

To be sure, Schneider defended herself, and many others also stood up for the shelter.

Schneider and others said her group took rescue animals from high-kill shelters and undesirable circumstances and thus they did not always arrive in good condition. She also said the operation had placed hundreds of dogs into loving homes, and, as River News reporter Jamie Taylor reported, she posted on Facebook images of veterinarian inspection and vaccination records for 25 of the dogs, showing many had been seen by a vet prior to the seizure.

What's in the prosecution file may well justify the decision not to charge, but, if it does, Schneider deserves to have that released to the public, after the severe public accusations she endured from the sheriff's department.

Because if that was the case, it was she, not the dogs, who was abused.

Complicating all this was a pair of civil actions, one a petition filed by Schneider to have all of the dogs returned to her. She also challenged a $13,000 bill she received from the Oneida County Humane Society for the care and sheltering of the dogs.

The humane society in turn sought to have the dogs declared unclaimed, and both civil actions have now been resolved. Apparently none of the dogs will be returned to Schneider, with the exception of those animals deemed to be her personal pets, but the terms of that agreement are also confidential. Why?

For her part, Sowinski says all of the documents that were produced by either the sheriff's department or the public health department are publicly available through open-records requests to those agencies, and the only thing confidential is whether there was a pre-charging agreement.

But that is not an unimportant detail. For what Schneider agreed to do, or not to do in exchange for no charges, if anything, could illuminate just what went on in the case, and how responsibly the assistant district attorney acted.

As Taylor has also reported, Schneider's Department of Agriculture dog seller's license remains suspended, and she has not attempted to renew it. Could that have something to do with a pre-charging agreement?

The sheriff's department stands by its own investigation and findings of abuse. Hook says it was one of the worst animal neglect cases in her career, and the worst, in terms of conditions, in the last 10 years. That alone underlines the straightforwardness of the case.

It would seem that either there was a horrific case of animal neglect warranting charges, or there was not.

Now there's no question that factors the public is unaware of might exist that would turn a seemingly straightforward case into a complicated one. If so, though, the district attorney's office needs to explain that. Otherwise, rumors swirl and the public does not know what to believe.

Meanwhile, on her Facebook page, Schneider proclaims her innocence and holds up the charging decision as proof. The assistant district attorney says that's not necessarily true.

Animal abuse and charges of animal neglect are serious business. Those who try to legitimately help abused and neglected animals can be deterred by the public harassment of an innocent person, but those would mistreat animals in the name of rescuing them can be encouraged by the lack of consequences if abuse is real.

Schneider could conceivably have her license reinstated and open her doors for business. But what if she was guilty? The public needs to know that wouldn't happen.

A lot is at stake in other words. This case is closed, but its ramifications are far from over. The public deserves answers and the district attorney's office is the only one who can give them.

It should.

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