When the retrial of a Key Largo man convicted in 2012 of felony animal abuse gets started later this year, a new judge will preside because of protests lodged by defense attorneys that the original judge is too prejudiced against the defendant to fairly consider the case.
Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia in May 2012 sentenced Noah Mitchell, 36, to nine months in the county jail. A six-member jury took six hours to find Mitchell guilty following his trial for severely beating his Labrador retriever puppy for reportedly snatching a piece of steak off the counter during an October 2010 barbecue.
Mitchell was immediately released on a $10,000 appeal bond and has not served any time.
During sentencing, Garcia said he did not believe Mitchell's excuse for the dog's horrific injuries. Mitchell maintains he dropped the dog, named Bubba, after the animal bit him on the hand as he was carrying him inside Mitchell's Pimlico Lane house.
Garcia said, "So, Mr. Mitchell's version of what occurred, as far as the court is concerned, is not credible.... Mr. Mitchell, you lost control ... and hurt that dog severely.... You basically refused to get help."
Those statements amount to a prejudice against Mitchell, his attorney, public defender Jerome Gilhooley, successfully argued in a Dec. 9 brief. The Circuit Court will appoint a new judge to the case in the coming weeks, said Assistant State Attorney Demetrios Efstratiou.
The beating of Bubba was one of the biggest stories of 2010 in the pet-centric Keys. People were so outraged that Gilhooley was worried his client could not receive a fair trial in the Upper Keys.
The Third District Court of Appeal reversed the conviction in July because the original prosecutor erred during closing arguments by telling jurors the burden of proof of Mitchell's guilt or innocence rested with the defense. She told jurors that the only way they could acquit Mitchell is if they felt all the state's witnesses lied in open court.
The Monroe State Attorney's Office decided to retry the case in October.
The day Bubba suffered his injuries, Mitchell was moving into his new house with the help of two friends, who would become witnesses for the prosecution.
After the day's work was done, the men barbecued steaks and drank beer. Not in dispute is that Bubba took a piece of meat off the counter and ran outside. But Mitchell tells a different story of how Bubba became injured —wounds that included a broken larynx, a collapsed lung and six broken ribs.
The friends, Gary Pitterman and Curt Murphy, say Mitchell was so enraged at Bubba for taking the food that he slammed, kicked and punched the then 8-month-old pet.
Mitchell's friends called their friend, Karin Kass, and explained how badly Bubba was hurt. Kass called Sheriff's Office deputies. When police arrived, they found the dog barely alive.
Sheriff's Sgt. Thomas Kiffney took Bubba to an emergency pet clinic in Miami-Dade. He was put on a ventilator machine for several days and given pain medication.
Bubba has since recovered and is living with new owners.