MOULTON — One juror who on Wednesday found five men not guilty of charges related to cockfighting said she was disgusted with the verdict.
“It was just terribly, terribly sad,” said JoMarie Bartlett, of Trinity.
“Everyone in that room was disgusted that we had to vote not guilty,” she said. “But the way the law reads, we had no choice.”
Joseph Lynn Holmes, 36, of Hanceville; Larry Dale McCroy, 53, of Hanceville; Zackary Clay McLeroy, 33, of Cullman; James Russell Garnett, 34, of Vinemont; and Grady Darrel McCroy, 54, of Cullman, faced charges of cruelty to animals and gambling on cockfighting.
The charges were the result of a raid of a cockfight at a residence off Lawrence County 81 at the edge of Bankhead National Forest.
“I’m just glad we left it up to the jury,” Larry McCroy said after the verdict. “I think they did the right thing. It was justifiable.”
According to the Code of Alabama, “Any person who keeps a cockpit or who in any public place fights cocks shall, on conviction, be fined not less than $20 nor more than $50.”
However, Bartlett said, “If it is in a private setting, by law it is not against the law to cockfight. That negates the animal cruelty right there.”
Bartlett said she spoke with Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, and had contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about the 1896 law allowing cockfighting in a non-public place.
Johnson said any proposed tougher cockfighting law probably won’t gain much traction in the Legislature, “considering all the important stuff that has got to be addressed.
“From what I’m aware of, it’s not a big problem in Lawrence County or in the rest of the state,” Johnson said. “As I understand, it was an issue of private property vs. public property, and that’s a careful balance that has to be maintained.”
A bill that would raise the penalties for cockfighting stalled in the Senate this year. The bill passed the Senate 21-5, but Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, called for a motion to carry over the bill for further consideration, effectively killing it for the session.
The bill would have increased the fine for cockfighting from $50 to $6,000 and up to 12 months in jail. The Alabama Gamefowl Breeders Association was heavily opposed to the legislation because the bill would prevent the breeding of birds that potentially could be used for cockfighting.
Lawrence County Drug Task Force investigator Shannon Holland was the only witness called during testimony. Holland testified that with a confidential informant, he attended the event Aug. 6 and Aug. 7, 2011. He said admission was charged and gamecocks fought in an octagon-shaped ring with bleachers and chairs on both sides. He testified he saw several dead and injured gamecocks and saw all the defendants handling the birds before or during fights.
The jury viewed video Holland captured on his cellphone of a cockfight and of injured birds.
The jury deliberated about three hours and returned to the courtroom asking Circuit Judge Mark Craig for access to a dictionary definition of a public place. Craig replied the jury must use the Legislature’s definition, which defines a public place as a place to which the public or a substantial group of people have access, such as schools, parks or playgrounds.
Craig said an example of a private dwelling is a residence. However, even if numerous people have access to a location, the location can still be private if attendance is by specific invitation only, Craig said.
The defendants’ attorney, Mark Dutton, of Moulton, said Tuesday the cockfight was held on private property.
Lawrence County District Attorney Errek Jett said though the cockfight was at a residence, the event wasn’t private and was open to the public because Holland was able to attend though he knew no one there other than an informant.
Bartlett said before the jury asked for the definition, five deemed the cockfight was held in private, while seven concluded it was held in public.
“We came back down and in just a few minutes, everyone who said public went private based on what (Craig) said,” she said.
Jett said after the verdict, evidence existed of mistreatment of animals even if the cockfight was held at a private location.
“Obviously there was a good argument as to it being interpreted the other way,” he said. “As I told someone earlier, we live and die by the jury system. And my ethical obligation, be it at trial or any point in the case, is to ensure justice was done.
“In this case, justice is when a jury comes back and says not guilty. We have to respect what the jury says.”
The U.S. Humane Society’s position on cockfighting is that it is illegal in every state, and most states specifically prohibit anyone from being a spectator at a cockfight. As of 2011, 39 states have passed felony cockfighting laws. In addition, the federal Animal Welfare Act prohibits the interstate transport of any animal that is to be used in an animal fighting venture.