IOWA CITY - An Iowa man who beat a puppy to death with a baseball bat didn't commit animal torture, an appeals court ruled Wednesday, in a decision denounced by an animal rights group.
Prosecutors failed to show that Zachary Meerdink, 31, acted with "depraved intent" when he killed the 7-month-old Boston terrier outside his girlfriend's apartment complex in Davenport in 2011, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision.
The court vacated Meerdink's conviction for animal torture, an aggravated misdemeanor, and the two-year prison sentence he received. Meerdink was paroled in April, but the court ordered that he be acquitted of the charge.
Chief Judge Larry Eisenhauer said prosecutors must prove the defendant acted with "depraved" or "sadistic" intent to support an animal torture conviction. He said that standard wasn't met because no one witnessed the killing, it's unclear how many times the dog was struck and Meerdink didn't appear to be happy or eager before and after the killing. What's more, Meerdink killed the dog after it demonstrated aggressive behavior that was getting worse, including biting a 9-year-old child, Eisenhauer wrote in a ruling joined by Judge Nancy Tabor.
The founder of a Des Moines-based nonprofit that's pushing for tougher sentences in animal cruelty cases called the decision shocking.
"The decision by the court is inconceivable and breaks the logic barrier," said Lin Sorenson of St. Francis Foundation for Pets. "Beating an innocent dog to death with a baseball bat meets the level of sadistic intent necessary in the Iowa Code to constitute animal torture."
Meerdink was living with his girlfriend in 2011, and she bought him the puppy. The girlfriend, Jamie Holladay, testified that the puppy had accidents in the home because of a weak stomach, often jumped on people, had bitten her and her three sons, and wasn't responding to coaching.
Holladay said she was running an errand when Meerdink called to ask where the Lysol spray was because the dog had an accident. When she returned, Meerdink walked out of the house with the dog under his arm. He came back minutes later carrying a baseball bat, saying the animal was dead.
Holladay ordered Meerdink to leave and called police. An officer found the dead dog in tall grass behind the apartment.
Judge Cheryl Traum found Meerdink guilty after a bench trial, saying the animal's death was enough to justify the torture charge. The act of hitting a dog in the head with a bat shows depraved intent because it was obvious severe physical pain would result, she ruled.
Appellate court Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran agreed, noting in a dissenting opinion that photos show the dog lying on its side with a bloodied eye and mouth and significant bruising on its head. She rejected claims that Meerdink acted after the puppy bit a child, saying there was no evidence of a biting incident on the day of the killing and the law doesn't allow for a justification defense.
She said a reasonable judge could have determined that Meerdink killed the puppy because of its accident, "an extreme response to an ordinary and foreseeable occurrence."
"A reasonable fact-finder could have found depravity based on the dog's age, the fact that the act was precipitated by nothing more than the puppy's weak stomach, the inference that Meerdink spent some time searching for a blunt instrument with which to kill the dog, the uncontested fact that Meerdink inflicted 'severe physical pain,' and the fact that the animal was a family pet," she added.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton, whose office prosecuted the case, said lawmakers should consider removing the "depraved" and "sadistic" language from the law. He said it's up to the Iowa Attorney General's Office to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling.
"We thought that the evidence of him beating a puppy to death with a baseball bat fit the definition," he said. "There was no additional evidence that could have been introduced to bolster the case."