LANCASTER, Calif. — A pit bull owner whose dogs fatally mauled a woman taking her morning stroll was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder.
The case against Alex Donald Jackson was one of the few where a dog owner has been charged with murder for failing to control pets they knew were dangerous. He will be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.
Pamela Devitt, a 63-year-old retiree, was on the home stretch of her daily walk in the high desert town of Littlerock in May 2013 when four of Jackson’s dogs leaped a fence and attacked her in the street.
She was alone, didn’t have a phone and no one was nearby. By the time help arrived, she had been bitten 150 to 200 times from head to toe and an arm was severed. She died from blood loss.
“Her story shouldn’t have ended in such a horrific way,” her husband, Ben Devitt, said as he overcame emotion to deliver a statement in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Devitt said he didn’t think sending Jackson away for life would change anything in his life but he wanted to let other dog owners know they “can’t be terrorizing their neighbours.”
Jackson, 31, was initially arrested when deputies searching for the dogs discovered a marijuana-growing operation in his house. He was later charged with murder when Devitt’s DNA was found on his dogs’ bloody fur. The dogs were put down.
Jackson did not speak during sentencing. Defence lawyer Al Kim, who said Jackson will appeal, argued that the judge should consider probation because of Jackson’s nonviolent criminal record.
Judge Lisa Chung, citing Jackson’s arrest record and probation violations, rejected that argument. She also rejected a prosecution request to tack on an additional nine-year sentence for drug convictions and a firearms charge. Instead, she sentenced Jackson to seven years for those crimes to run concurrent with the murder term.
A murder conviction for a killing by dogs is rare.
The mauling of Diane Whipple in the hallway outside her San Francisco apartment in 2001 led to her neighbour’s second-degree murder conviction.
A Michigan couple is facing trial on second-degree murder charges for the mauling death of a jogger in July by two cane corsos, an Italian mastiff-type breed, near their home outside Detroit.
The theory behind such cases is that the accused did something so reckless they had to know it was dangerous enough to kill someone — even without intending harm.
“His actions in this case show that he has a nearly psychopathic disregard for the lives and well-being of others,” Deputy District Attorney Ryan Williams said of Jackson in his sentencing memo.
Prosecutors sought a term of 24 years to life in prison for the murder and other charges combined.
In Jackson’s case and others like it, prosecutors have said neighbours and others complained that the owners’ dogs were vicious or dangerous and that the owners didn’t do enough to control the animals. The dogs guarded Jackson’s pot-growing operation and he knew the animals were dangerous, Williams said.
The Devitts had never had an encounter with Jackson’s dogs. They bypassed his house by a quarter-mile because the racket from the dogs interrupted the peacefulness of their walk.
But nine other witnesses, including several horse riders and a postal worker, testified about seven frightening encounters. One equestrian had offered to provide free fencing and help Jackson put it up to keep the dogs on his property, but Jackson did not accept the help.
Kim said Thursday that the “nail in the coffin” for Jackson was that the number of other incidents made it hard to argue that he wasn’t aware of the danger the dogs posed.
At trial, Kim conceded Jackson was a drug dealer, but also said he was a dog lover who took in strays that reproduced. While he should have kept closer watch of them, he never intended to hurt someone.
Jackson’s older brother, Vincent, spoke on his brother’s behalf in court. He said the killing had taken a heavy toll on his family and that his brother felt “absolutely terrible” about it and never meant for anyone to be harmed by his dogs.