On May 9, 2013, Pamela Devitt, 63, was killed by 4 pit bulls in Antelope Valley, California, about 65 miles east of Los Angeles. The owner of the dogs was Alex Donald Jackson, 29, a resident of the area where Ms. Devitt took her final walk. The dogs had inflicted 150 to 200 puncture wounds all over her body. After Devitt was killed, police found the victim's blood on Jackson's dogs, said Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's homicide division. (See Reuters, California Man Charged With Murder In Fatal Pit Bull Mauling, May 30, 2013.)
It was not the first time that dogs belonging to Jackson, and he himself, had engaged in violence. Dogs belonging to him previously had attacked emus and horses. On January 13, 2013, the pit bulls attacked a horse and Jackson threw a rock at its rider. Those incidents form the cornerstone of the murder case against him.
The law of murder in California
In California, murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with "malice aforethought." It is first degree murder if it is "willful, deliberate, and premeditated." (Penal Code sec. 189.)
It is second degree murder if, among other things, the defendant was doing something dangerous to human life, with actual knowledge of the danger and conscious disregard of the fact that the act endangers human life. (People v. Knoller (2007) 41 Cal.4th 139; see summary at animallaw.com.)
A person might be convicted of second degree murder if, for example, he knows that a front yard has pit bulls in it, that the pit bulls were trained to attack human beings or had a habit of attacking human beings, that the dogs were capable of killing human beings, that the front yard had a gate that would permit the dogs to escape the yard if the gate were left open, that the gate might be open, and that children might be walking past the open gate.
Indeed, that was the prosecution's theory in the Cash Carson prosecution. Prosecutors filed second degree murder charges against the caretaker of the two dogs that mauled 10-year-old Cash Carson to death in Newberry Springs, California, on April 29, 2000. The caretaker was Joseph Chiaveta, 54. The defendant also was charged with involuntary manslaughter. (Amy Collins, Pit Bull Attack Elicits Murder Charge, July 9, 2000.) In that case, the jury found the defendant not guilty of second degree murder (but guilty of manslaughter) because there was no evidence that the dogs were known or trained to fight, attack or kill.
What it will take to get a conviction
In the Pamela Devitt murder case, prosecutors apparently believe there is strong evidence that Jackson knew or should have known that his pit bulls were vicious toward people. If that can be proved, the fact that the dogs were running loose before the attack could be all the jury needs to convict Jackson. This was the case in 2002, when a Los Angeles jury found Marjorie Knoller guilty of second degree murder after her Presa Canario dog killed Diane Whipple. (Dogbitelaw.com, The Diane Whipple Case, 2008.)
What the Pamela Devitt case means to dog owners
Devitt's fatal attack comes at a time when pit bulls are in a harsh spotlight: 13 of the 14 canine homicides in 2013 have been by pit bulls. (Dogsbite.org, 2013 Dog Bite Fatalities, May 2013.) It is bound to stir the debate over whether the blame should fall on pit bulls or their owners. Perhaps both were equally at fault in the killing of Pamela Devitt.
News articles of note
The female jogger mauled to death by pack of pit bulls in Los Angeles (Mail online [Daily Mail], May 10, 2013))
Littlerock residents carried weapons in case of dogs (Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2013)
Pit bull owner charged with murder had dogs put down in '06 (Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2013)
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