Alabama lawyer James Stewart Robinson, 45, just may be the lawyer Michael Vick was looking for. Robinson has been charged with cruelty to a dog after he allegedly slit the throat of his family’s pet pit bull and then texted a photo of the dead dog to his estranged wife. The two are in the midst of a bitter divorce and had been arguing of custody of the dog, named Rufus.
Notably, the body of the American Staffordshire bull terrier was exhumed and sent for forensic testing to a lab in Florida as part of a five-month-long investigation. Robinson had not yet turned himself in after the charges were filed.
Robinson is also accused of leaving a voicemail for his wife saying “Your day is coming girl” after sending her the photo of the dead dog, Rufus. That appears to have led to a conviction of Robinson for harassment. He was sentenced to six months, but has appealed the verdict.
The question is whether the wife will now sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. As we have discussed previously, pets are treated as chattel and damages confined directly to replacement value and other direct costs. However, the damages are higher when the value of the dog is effectively channeled through the pain and suffering of the owner. Tragically, the killing of pets is an all-too-common response to bitter relationships or divorces (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). It is a classic intentional torts for the infliction of emotional distress and the alleged added threat on the email would likely seal the matter for the jury.
Robinson who is shown here bills himself as an expert in the representation of doctors. He is a graduate of Cumberland School of Law – Samford University.
On his website, Robison speaks of how he strives to meet the highest standards of his profession in light of his family history in the bar: “As the son of a prominent Birmingham lawyer, I grew up with a desire to become a reputable lawyer myself.” He may want to focus on preserving his liberty rather than his reputation at this point.
Notably, the state law is written in terms of torture of a dog for a first-degree conviction:
Section 13A-11-241 – Cruelty in first and second degrees.
(a) A person commits the crime of cruelty to a dog or cat in the first degree if he or she intentionally tortures any dog or cat or skins a domestic dog or cat or offers for sale or exchange or offers to buy or exchange the fur, hide, or pelt of a domestic dog or cat. Cruelty to a dog or cat in the first degree is a Class C felony. A conviction for a felony pursuant to this section shall not be considered a felony for purposes of the Habitual Felony Offender Act, Section 13A-5-9 to 13A-5-10.1, inclusive.
(b) A person commits the crime of cruelty to a dog or cat in the second degree if he or she, in a cruel manner, overloads, overdrives, deprives of necessary sustenance or shelter, unnecessarily or cruelly beats, injuries, mutilates, or causes the same to be done. Cruelty to a dog or cat in the second degree is a Class A misdemeanor.
(Act 2000-615, p. 1252, §2.)
The statute is typical of the relative light treatment given to killing pets in many states. If this is the statute under which Robinson is charged, it would presumably be based on a claim that the slitting of the throat of Rufus constitutes a form of torture. However, is that accurate? How would the statute distinguish between torture and a simply killing under such an interpretation?
Even the misdemeanor provision is written in a curious fashion:
Section 13A-11-14 – Cruelty to animals.
(a) A person commits the crime of cruelty to animals if, except as otherwise authorized by law, he or she intentionally or recklessly:
(1) Subjects any animal to cruel mistreatment; or
(2) Subjects any animal in his or her custody to cruel neglect; or
(3) Kills or injures without good cause any animal belonging to another.
(b) Cruelty to animals is a Class B misdemeanor and on the first conviction of a violation of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than three thousand dollars ($3,000) or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months, or both fine and imprisonment; on a second conviction of a violation of this section, shall be punished by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than three thousand dollars ($3,000) or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months, or both fine and imprisonment; and on a third or subsequent conviction of a violation of this section, shall be punished by a fine of not less than one thousand dollars ($1,000) nor more than three thousand dollars ($3,000) or imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months, or both fine and imprisonment.
(Acts 1977, No. 607, p. 812, §5565; Act 2010-550, p. 977, §2.)
Note that it speaks to killing a dog “belonging to another.” Once again, the statutory interpretation is challenging. If a provision covers killing an animal, can you also read “mistreatment” as covering a killing?
These laws are based on long standing approaches to pets as chattel that could be dispatched at the will or whim of owners as with other animals in their possession. Of course, if required to take the animal to the pound, the animal may still be euthanized but would have an chance for adoption. Moreover, the death would be done in a statutorily prescribe manner.
If convicted, it is hard to see how Robinson could meet the lowest possible standard for practice as a member of the bar. The alleged act is one of such depravity and cruelty that it would destroy any notion of fitness to serve as an officer of the court. If he were to admit the crime, he could argue the stress of the divorce and possible mitigating factors connected to the stress of the period. Would this justify a suspension with ordered counseling in your mind or should he be disbarred following a conviction?