Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Bittersweet Justice for Sugar the Cat
Monday was International Cat Day. But that made no difference to Magisterial District Judge Jacqueline Taschner. She cleared North Catasauqua police officer Leighton Pursell of minor animal cruelty charges lodged against him after he euthanized an injured domestic shorthair cat named Sugar on December 6, 2015. Pursell, who had been suspended following this felinicide, returned to work on Tuesday.
When Officer Pursell responded to a radio dispatch of an "injured cat" in the backyard of Michael Leinert's home at 1112 American Street, he noticed that the cat appeared to be injured and hissed at him. He saw signs of mange, an exaggerated limp and a blood trail leading to a grill area where the feline had moved. There were no reports of a missing cat, and it wore no collar. There were reports at the time of cats with rabies, including two cats in North Catasauqua. There are no facilities for stray cats, and the Borough police department's "use of force policy" specifically authorizes police to destroy an animal "as a humanitarian measure when the animal is seriously injured." Officer Pursell made a judgment call to humanely end the life of the cat with a single shot from his department-issued .38 caliber revolver, after which he placed the cat in a plastic bag for disposal.
Because Officer Pursell failed to first obtain two written certificates from reputable citizens confirming that that Sugar was injured beyond recovery, only minor charges were warranted, according to DA John Morganelli.
Officer Pursell was represented by prominent criminal defense attorney Gary Asteak. He argued that "Officer Pursell came upon a snarling, clawing, limping, mangy, bleeding cat with no tags after receiving a call from a homeowner who could not let his dogs out and wanted the cat removed. With known cases of rabies in the community and seeing the cat injured, bleeding, and unapproachable and without gloves, a trap or any implement to seize the cat and no Animal Control Officer or Shelter to call, he humanely killed it. The Veterinarian at the hearing confirmed that under those circumstances, it was the humane thing to do."
The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Jim Augustine, who was in court all day on Monday and unavailable for comment.
Judge Taschner concluded that the Commonwealth failed to prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt," but minced no words with Officer Pursell, telling him, "What you did is not right."
So ends the criminal case, but a social media firestorm is still going strong. Morganelli has previously blasted a "mob mentality" on Facebook's "Justice for Sugar" page. He said the public was "unnecessarily enraged" by false information that made its way into social media and even included calls for murder charges.
An online petition at Change.org, signed by over 213,000 people, has called for more serious criminal charges, as well as Officer Pursell's "immediate termination."
Morganelli had previously claimed that Sugar's owner, Thomas Newhart, bears some of the responsibility for what happened. On three prior occasions, animals owned by Newhart had run off, including Sugar. Morganelli chastised Newhart for his failure to have a collar or other identifying information on Sugar. "His negligence created a situation which helped lead to a tragic event," said the DA.
He also rebuked Newhart's Attorney, Jenna Fliszar, for a misleading letter claiming that there were no injuries to Sugar. "This information led thousands of people to form opinions based on false information," he observed.
A report commissioned by former NorCo Exec John Stoffa in 2013 determined that stray cats an outnumber stray dogs by as much as four to one, but there are no provisions to deal with sick, injured or stray cats.