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Owner Found Guilty in Dog Killing

O.C. man who beheaded his pet could get life in prison, if found sane. He killed the German shepherd after he and a girlfriend broke up.

June 04, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A La Habra man who beheaded his German shepherd was convicted Thursday of animal cruelty, a charge that could send the third-striker to prison for life.

A sanity hearing is scheduled to start Monday in Orange County Superior Court for James Andrew Abernathy, 42, who says he was insane in January 2002 when he killed his dog, whom he had named Marie in honor of his girlfriend.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Heather Brown said anger, not insanity, drove Abernathy to beat his dog with a golf club, shove a stake through her heart and then decapitate her with pruning shears.

He did those things, Brown said, "all because his girlfriend ... had broken up with him."

Judge Kazuharu Makino found Abernathy guilty after a two-hour, nonjury trial in Santa Ana.

Abernathy's lawyer, William G. Morrissey, did not call any witnesses nor make any statements to the judge.

After the trial, Morrissey said his client was a diagnosed schizophrenic who was not on medication when he killed his dog. The prosecutor contends Abernathy is faking his symptoms.

If the judge determined Abernathy was insane, he could be sent to a psychiatric institution rather than prison.

The case has drawn attention from animal-rights activists who have flooded the court and district attorney's office with letters calling for strong sanctions for Abernathy.

Although felony animal cruelty carries a three-year maximum sentence, California law allows prosecutors to seek a life prison term for a defendant's third felony conviction. Abernathy was convicted twice in 1986 for assault with a deadly weapon.

During Thursday's trial, one of Abernathy's neighbors, Traci Healy, testified that he came to her house the morning of Jan. 27, 2002, and said that he had fought with his girlfriend and killed his dog.

He seemed distraught, she said, crying and shaking as he asked her and her mother not to call police.

Healy's mother, Joan Marinaro, testified that Abernathy told them he would be "in real trouble" if police came. Marinaro said that after she called police, Abernathy told them he needed mental help.

Janice Johnson, a La Habra Animal Control officer, testified that after searching Abernathy's Chinchilla Street house, she found the dog's headless body in a bedroom closet; a golf club sat nearby. The officer said she found the dog's head, wrapped in a towel, in Abernathy's garage.

Stocky, ponytailed and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, Abernathy sat quietly and expressionless during the brief trial. Occasionally, the chains locking his hands to his waist jingled.

Relatives told The Times after his 2002 arrest that he had been in and out of jail much of his life. He collected guns, swords, knives and other weapons, they said.

After being discharged from the Army, Abernathy earned a certificate as a physical trainer but did not pursue a career in fitness, said his father, George Abernathy.

His father will testify against him in the sanity phase of his trial, the prosecutor said.

"Everybody's scared of him," George Abernathy said in an interview shortly after his son's arrest. "If putting him in prison for 25 years to life is going to prevent him from hurting some innocent person, that's OK with me."

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