NORTH CAROLINA -- It’s difficult to know which was worse: the crime, or the fact that a trio of teenage knuckleheads decided it would make for a funny video to post online.
Last December — it’s not clear exactly when — the three trapped an opossum, doused the poor thing in gasoline and lit it on fire.
One of them used an iPhone to record it. Then, for further kicks, the video was posted to Instagram, a social media device that allows friends and acquaintances to view pictures and videos.
Collectively, the three are neither Albert Einstein nor Alfred Hitchcock. The Three Stooges might be the better description.
And that ill-advised and sickening video is precisely why two of them were standing Thursday in front of a Superior Court judge wearing their Sunday best.
“Three young men tortured and burned alive a possum for sport,” said prosecutor Matt Breeding, who interrupted a family vacation to see that the case was handled properly. “You can hear them snickering and giggling in the background.”
The two young men in court Thursday — 18-year-olds Kalob Hubbard and Jared Rose — were there to plead guilty to felony cruelty to animals. Hubbard also pleaded guilty to two additional misdemeanors related to trapping the opossum.
The third is a juvenile and is being treated as such by the court system.
As part of their plea agreement, they would be allowed to enter a deferred prosecution program. If they comply with all the terms and conditions, the charges would be dropped after one year. Screw up even a little, and they get hauled back into court and sent directly to jail for up to three years and three months.
The case came to the attention of investigators with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office last December when an anonymous caller informed them of the video and provided names of the suspects. That set off a chain of events that resulted in the indictments of Hubbard and Rose.
“I won’t show the video today. It’s pretty disturbing,” Breeding said.
But he did describe its contents. And he likely did everyone in the court a favor by not showing it.
[The video] opens with a shot of a foot on the back of the opossum’s neck. Some sort of ignitable fluid — investigators later learned it was gasoline — was poured on the animal before an extended arm appeared, holding a long grill lighter.
“The possum, now on fire, runs into the forest before it was euthanized,” Breeding told Judge Richard Stone.
When confronted, the young men admitted their involvement. Hubbard and Rose — or more likely, their parents — also retained the services of Mike Grace, a highly regarded local defense attorney.
That set into motion another negotiation: What do you do about it?
The Sword of Damocles
On one hand, you have video of three teenagers who lit a live animal on fire, laughed about it and circulated the video on social media. By any standard, that’s deviant behavior and, many times, a predictor of future violent behavior toward human beings.
On the other, you have teenagers with exactly zero encounters with police or the court system.
Hubbard and Rose were seniors at Calvary Christian School with plans to join the Marine Corps after graduation. According to Grace, they were kicked out of Calvary after they were indicted and had to be home-schooled in order to graduate.
And like it or not, the animal was a varmint — an opossum and not a family pet. Setting it on fire was a twisted and mean act, but is it worth forever changing the course of two young lives?
That’s where prosecutors decided to offer a deal. If Hubbard and Rose, who were indicted as adults, complied with the terms of 12 months of supervised probation, completed 100 hours of community service and submitted to a complete psychological evaluation — and follow through with all recommended treatment from it — the felony charges get dismissed in a year.
“We have to balance the severity of the event with the age, maturity and culpability of the defendant,” Breeding said. “There are collateral consequences to their futures. As felons, they might not be able to go to college or get a meaningful job.”
Grace agreed, and he said so when he rose to speak on behalf of his clients.
“We have to be as concerned about the behavior as much as the charge,” he said. “I think this is taking an enlightened position without pooh-poohing this kind of cruelty to animals.”
Stone, too, agreed and reminded Hubbard and Rose that “the sword of Damocles hangs over your heads. One stupid mistake, and you’ve already entered guilty pleas to felonies.”
(Winston-Salem Journal - July 3, 2014)