CALIFORNIA -- A 72-year-old woman was taken away by ambulance after breaking into tears after her conviction for keeping more than 200 Chihuahuas in her Acton home that a prosecutor termed a "house of death and torture."
Paramedics were called to the Antelope Valley Courthouse courtroom to check on Emma Harter, who began sobbing after the reading of the guilty verdicts on animal-cruelty and other charges, and then, after the jury was excused, laid her head down on a courtroom table and wept.
"Miss Harter was very upset. Some medical personnel came and checked her," Deputy District Attorney Stephen Heller said. "She was clearly quite distressed."
After Harter became distraught, the scheduling of her sentencing hearing was delayed until the afternoon. Harter did not appear at the afternoon hearing, and her attorney, Robert Conaway, said he had not been updated as to her condition, officials said.
Judge Lisa Chung put over until Friday a decision on when Harter will be sentenced. Court officials said Harter was taken to a hospital but her condition was not available Tuesday afternoon.
Harter, a retired school cafeteria manager, was found guilty of one count of felony animal cruelty, plus misdemeanor counts of failure to separate sick animals, keeping animals in unsanitary conditions, animal endangerment and battery on an animal control officer.
Harter shoved a woman animal control officer out of her home's doorway in November 2002 when authorities came to inspect her five-acre property, prosecutors said.
While the felony animal-cruelty count carries a possible prison sentence, Heller said he will not seek prison or jail for Harter. He said he will ask that she get counseling, be barred from owning animals and make restitution to Los Angeles County for the cost of keeping her dogs.
"She clearly needs counseling," Heller said. "I personally don't believe she is able to admit to herself that what she did was wrong. It was a difficult case. She's an older lady; it raises some different issues."
About 170 of Harter's Chihuahuas were kept at a county shelter in Baldwin Park at a cost estimated at $2,000 a day after they were taken by authorities from Harter in November 2002. The estimated cost to the county is more than $500,000, Heller said.
Chung, who presided over the trial, in August gave a Burbank Chihuahua rescue group the 170 Chihuahuas, which county animal control officers described as half-wild. The rescue group promised to try to find good homes for the dogs.
Lt. Sheri Koenig, who led the inspection of Harter's home, testified that she had never before seen such conditions.
A video filmed by animal control officers as they entered the house showed dogs on tables and couches, soiled newspapers, dirty sheets, bloated ticks and feces. Outside, dead dogs were found in a freezer and shopping bags stuffed with dog carcasses littered the yard.
Many of the dogs in the house were inbred and suffered severe behavioral problems, forming feral fighting packs, which regularly attacked, injured and killed other dogs. Several died or were euthanized after they were taken from Harter's home.
Conaway (Harter's attorney) LIED AND told jurors that some of the videotaped footage and photos of the dogs were "staged" by authorities. He urged the jurors to weigh what the laws require and not be swayed by the emotional impact of the prosecution's photographs. (Basically he tried to convince the jury that animals are merely property and living conditions and untreated injuries from being attacked by other dogs doesn't matter
Conaway said Harter raised Chihuahuas for 20 years, and that there is no limit on the number of dogs a commercial breeder can have.
Jurors heard testimony from Harter's daughter, who testified that the home had been ransacked and that filth is a relative term. A veterinarian present during the impounding described the horrific conditions of the dogs.
Conaway (Harter's attorney) called the vet's testimony unfair to his client because the bodies of dogs euthanized or found dead were disposed of before autopsies could be performed.
"She testified and admitted they trashed the evidence of all the dead dogs," Conaway said.
Harter was convicted in 1995 for operating an illegal kennel, but that conviction was overturned on appeal.
Before the jury began deliberating, Heller dropped a second felony animal-cruelty charge as well as a misdemeanor charge of running an illegal kennel.
Harter's dogs lived inside her house in what Heller described as squalor, an overwhelming stench, two to three inches of dried feces on the carpet, and "millions"of ticks crawling on the walls.
Los Angeles County animal control officers said they found dozens of dead and dying dogs among the Chihuahuas in the house. The dogs had dug burrows in the walls and furniture and formed feral packs that preyed on weaker dogs, they said.
Heller said Harter had 235 dogs and 61 birds when officers visited her home in November 2002. There were 32 dead animals, including 23 dogs and nine birds.
Of the living dogs, 14 were "so severely medically impaired"that they were euthanized by county officials, Heller said.
Heller said the dogs' ailments included anemia, bite wounds, tick infestation, respiratory infections, fluid on the brain, multiple types of worms, head and facial deformities, heart failure and tumors.
Jurors began deliberating about 9 a.m. and returned with a verdict about 11:20 a.m. They spent part of the deliberation time viewing for the second time a 75-minute videotape made by Los Angeles County animal control officers of conditions at Harter's house.
(LA Daily News - March 17, 2004
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