The Humane Society of Louisiana (“HSLA”), in a harsh rebuke against the Vernon Parish District Attorney’s Office and Judge Tony A. Bennett of the 30th Judicial District, has called the deferred sentencing imposed upon two convicted animal abusers, lenient and undermining of the hard work by dozens of public and private agencies tasked with protecting animals.

On October 20, 2018, deputies from the Vernon Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Louisiana Dept of Agriculture Brand Commission, the Vernon Parish Animal Control, and the St. Landry Parish Animal Control and Rescue, executed a search warrant on the property belonging to Steven Jones and Holly Darden at 220 Wise-Burns Rd, Leesville, in Vernon Parish.

Once on the property, they found the carcasses of at least six mules, one horse, and two dogs.

They also found dozens of animals in various stages of dehydration, neglect, and starvation.

There was no running water on the property, and all of the dogs were chained to trees, covered with flies and with no water. Those on the property saw puppies so starved that they attacked and ate a live chicken.

One miniature horse was so ill and stricken, it could not stand up; others were near death from neglect.

The Vernon Parish Animal Control took custody of nine dogs and St. Landry Animal Control took eight donkeys, six horses, eight dogs including one that died the next morning from coccidia and giardia, and one small black goat that died the next day from neglect. One of the horses had to be euthanized the day after his rescue because he was in such a debilitating condition.

Jeff Dorson, HSL Director commented, “based on the pictures and statements we received, we would call this a place ‘hell on earth’ for animals.”

On May 7th, Holly Dowden and Steven Jones appeared represented by public defenders before Judge Tony A. Bennett of the 30th Judicial District of Louisiana.

The Vernon Parish District Attorney’s Office, without conferring with any animal control officers who were on the scene, drafted a plea deal that was extremely favorable to the defendants. Judge Bennett accepted the agreement.

HSL reviewed the court transcripts of the sentencing and forwarded their response in a lengthy email to Mr. Asa Skinner, the District Attorney for Vernon Parish.

HSL and their colleagues felt that Mr. Lea Hall, Jr. the assistant district attorney who handled this case, made several errors and missteps. In drafting the plea agreement, they came up with a deferred sentence, meaning that if the defendants completed the condition of their probation they may even seek to have the charges expunged from their record.

HSL objected to the following provisions of the sentencing:

The couple was not sentenced to serve a single day in jail even though they allowed at least nine animals to die from neglect and at least 30 others to be neglected and cruelly treated;

At no time did Mr. Hall contact either animal control agency to consider the well-being of the impounded animals. Had he, he would have learned that one goat died from starvation within 24 hours after being removed; at least one dog had to be rushed to the vet for emergency treatment that cost more than $1,000.00, a Palomino stud horse was so debilitated that he had to be euthanized by a vet at a cost of $250.00. Mr. Hall failed to inform the court of these actions, because he never even asked for additional information or supplemental reports from the responding animal agencies. This is obviously a glaring error that casts doubt on Mr. Hall’s interest in the welfare of the animals. It is tantamount for a prosecutor to fail to ask about the welfare of 30 children who were removed by social workers from an abusive home where several later died from neglect. This oversight is unacceptable;

Mr. Hall never asked for nor presented to the court any invoices for feed, boarding, additional staffing, or veterinary care for any of the animals seized, the care of which cost the tax-payers thousands of dollars. The district attorney advised HSL that because the defendants appeared indigent, the matter was moot. This is obviously a crude judgment and unacceptable;

Mr. Hall and Judge Bennett agreed to allow Mr. Jones and Ms. Darden to perform 160 hours of community service at a Humane Society. It is the Humane Society’s position that this is similar to allowing a pedophile to volunteer at a daycare center. This reasoning defies logic and common sense;

Mr. Hall and Judge Bennett failed to follow the sentencing guidelines under La. R.S. 14. 102. B. (5) by not ordering Mr. Jones and Ms. Darden to undergo and pay for psychological counseling.

The HSL has had several communications on the matter with Mr. Skinner and he has attempted to address each of their concerns.

Mr. Skinner also filed a petition with Judge Bennett to correct the oversights in this case and in order for the sentences to become compliant with the sentencing guidelines. Mr. Skinner informed HSL by phone that his office filed a motion to reconsider sentencing which will amend the original sentences and order the defendants to seek and pay for psychological evaluations. The hearing is set for early August.

According to Mr. Dorson, “Mr. Skinner assured us that his office and his employees take the mistreatment of animals very seriously, and I do not doubt his sincerity. However, Judge Bennett said something during the sentencing hearing that we feel sums up the problem with how this case was adjudicated.”

Mr. Dorson was referring to lines 24- 27 on page 11 of the court transcript of Mr. Jones’s hearing, where Judge Bennett said to the defendants, “you're getting a big break for these charges, so, if you violate that, there’s a very good chance you’re gonna get to spend some time in prison, all right?”

“That one sentence points to the heart of this case. Why are [the defendants] entitled to a ‘big break’ when they killed at least eight animals and allowed more than 30 to suffer helplessly? Are individuals only sentenced to jail for the 41st animal they abuse and starve, we ask rhetorically? We feel that Judge Bennett needs to explain this logic and defend his actions to local agencies and the rest of the nation which likely will stand in utter disbelief of his decisions, as we do,” says Mr. Dorson.

“We are deeply disturbed and saddened by this sentencing and oppose it on virtually every level. It is no coincidence that Louisiana ranks last in the country with regard to health care, income per capita, education, and opportunity for its residents. We suggest that this type of sentencing also places Louisiana last in the humane treatment of its animals,” adds Dorson.