Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pennsylvania: Witnesses with key evidence not allowed to testify; judge dismisses animal cruelty charge against Nicole Rust, who was charged with animal cruelty in 2014

PENNSYLVANIA -- A woman, in the process of moving to Tennessee, was found not guilty of cruelty to animals by a Mercer County magistrate on Monday.

Nicole Rust of Mercer was charged after neighbors complained to the Humane Society of Mercer County that she abandoned a blind horse on a foreclosed property in East Lackawannock Township where she once lived.

The blind animal became sick with colic in September and the neighbors contacted county officials.

A veterinarian testified in court that when neighbors stepped in and called the Mercer Humane Society, the horse's health had deteriorated to the point where euthanasia was a possibility.

“Nicole had left the animals tied to trees, locked in a barn,” said Heather Rust-Murray. “There was no food or water available.”

Rust denied neglecting the animal and said her husband was caring for the horse during a brief absence from the property. She said she had only been gone three days when the horse was removed by the state.

“It took me a couple of days to find out what happened and where she went,” Rust said after the court proceedings. “Their agenda was they just wanted her taken away and that’s the way it was with all my animals.”

District Judge Lorinda Hinch, Mercer, said the state’s case against Rust was not strong enough for a conviction after Rust’s husband was called to the witness stand.

Neighbors had expected to hear Rust's husband, Martin, testify that he is afraid of horses, doesn't live at the site, and doesn't like taking care of them.

Martin Rust refused to testify against his wife. Judge Hinch reminded prosecuting attorneys that a husband can not be compelled to testify against a wife.

“I can’t rule on hearsay,” Hinch told Assistant District Attorney Mary Odem. “And I’m not going to allow a spousal privilege to be broken.”

The state filed the cruelty charge against Nicole Rust involving the blind horse in October after the animal developed colic.

Odem alleged Martin Rust would not have cared for the animal properly after it got sick.

“What else do you want from someone who is going to care for her horse?” Hinch asked. “Does that person have to be out in the barn 24/7? Are you assuming because they will only feed and water the horse, if the horse goes into medical distress, that they won’t call the vet? Because that is all the Humane Society did.”

In 2014, Nicole Rust was charged with animal cruelty after 29 horses in her care were seized by the Humane Society. The agency said at the time her horses were living in deplorable conditions and were malnourished.

Hinch asked Rust if the blind horse in question on Monday was one of the 29 involved in the 2014 case. Rust said the horse had been taken from her in 2014.

“I do not feel the evidence proves you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hinch said. “Therefore I find you not guilty and it pains me to do it, it pains me to do it. I honestly don’t understand what you are doing. You have these animals and you don’t seem to me to be as interested in caring for them as other people do.

“I just don’t understand it. How many times are you going to be in on these things?" Hinch asked, referring to the 2014 case and other alleged animal law violations, some as recent as August.

About a dozen people, who said they cared for the blind horse for several months over the summer, attended the proceedings on Monday to hear Hinch’s ruling.

They were clearly emotional as they left the courtroom.

“We all knew the house was abandoned,” said Bonnie Gilkey. “There was no running water, the grass was overgrown, there was garbage and feces everywhere. This is very frustrating.”

Gilkey said when they contacted the Humane Society they were told “as long as people are taking care of the animals, they are not abandoned.”

“I can’t stand by, do nothing and watch them starve to death,” Gilkey said breaking down into tears. “The Humane Society gives us very little direction.”

Gilkey and several other people who took care of the horses and who attended the trial said they were frustrated they were subpoenaed with their evidence, but were not allowed to testify about the day the blind horse got colic and about its living conditions.

They say they have pictures of moldy hay, no water, and videos of the living conditions.

“It's horrible that they didn't present enough evidence to show that these horses are neglected,” said Trish Worden.

Nicole Rust was also frustrated with the legal system.

“I’m going to see what I can do legally,” she said.

Rust alleges her horse became sick because the neighbors were overfeeding the animal. She was also not happy with the judge’s personal comments.

“If I could have said something without going to jail, I would have,” she said. “It was wrong of her to judge me without knowing me. I have gone without eating to buy them their feed."

Rust said the whole situation would never have happened if the neighbors would have stayed out of her business.

“I got stuck in a bad situation and was doing the best I could,” she said.

Rust told 21 News she is trying to get money to take the horses to Tennessee. “ I'm extremely happy to get her back. I have always looked after her. I've taken care of her. I can't wait for her to come back home,” said Rust.

(Sharon Herald - Nov 30, 2016)(WFMJ)


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