SAN FRANCISCO — A Morgan Hill, Calif., man whose pit bull terrier killed a 2-year-old boy in June has been charged with murder, Santa Clara County prosecutors said Tuesday.
Michael Patrick Berry, 37, had expected to be arraigned on a charge of manslaughter when he appeared Monday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, his attorney said.
But in a surprise move that animal rights experts and county officials said was the first of its kind, prosecutors instead charged Berry with second-degree murder.
Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Nudelman said the charge stemmed from the fact that the dog involved in the attack had been trained to fight. Nudelman said his department brought in experts on dog fighting to help prepare the case against Berry.
These experts concluded that the dog involved in the case was a specially trained fighter "noted for the power of his bite," Nudelman said.
"It is not the breed itself that is on trial," Nudelman added. "It is the man who is on trial for the training and possession of a fighting dog and allowing it to be where a small child would have access to it."
A manslaughter conviction carries a maximum sentence of four years in state prison. If the charges against Berry result in a conviction of second-degree murder, however, he could receive a sentence of 15 years to life.
Murder requires a showing of malice on the part of a person accused of causing a death, while manslaughter does not.
Prosecutors say they will argue that Berry's actions meet the legal definition of malice in that he acted with "wanton disregard for the consequences" when he tethered his specially trained black pit bull, Willy, where neighborhood children had access.
On June 13, Willy fatally mauled 2-year-old James Arthur Soto after the neighbor boy wandered into the area where the dog was tethered.
The dog was impounded and is being held in a secret location pending Berry's trial.
Berry's attorney, Joseph F. Landreth, called the murder charge "ridiculous."
"The odds they could make those murder charges stick are virtually nil," he said. Landreth said the charges stemmed from "a lynch-mob mentality" on the part of police and prosecutors.
"They want Mr. Berry's hide because he owned the dog, and they're not going to get it."
Nudelman scoffed at Landreth's accusation and said that his office had acted cautiously by initially filing manslaughter charges against Berry and waiting to see whether additional evidence would surface.
Warren Broderick, executive director for the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, said if the charges stick, Berry would become the first person in this country convicted of murder for a death caused by an animal.
"We have a unique situation here in that this dog was trained to fight, to kill. To have this animal in an area that was accessible to children and other folks was inexcusable."
Broderick said that if Berry is convicted, it will send a strong message to breeders and trainers of fighting dogs that "the public is not going to stand for it."