HARTFORD, Conn. – Many states have victim's advocates or child advocates, people in the judicial system who represent those affected by crime or abuse. Now, one state has created legal advocates for abused animals, an experiment being watched across the nation for signs of success.
There are eight approved volunteer advocates across Connecticut — seven lawyers and a UConn law professor, working with her students. It's up to a judge to decide whether to appoint one, but they can be requested by prosecutors or defense attorneys. In the first six months of the law, advocates have been appointed in five cases.
"Every state has the problem of overburdened courts that understandably prioritize human cases over animal cases in allocating resources," said University of Connecticut professor Jessica Rubin, a specialist in animal law. "Here's a way to help."
The American Kennel Club, though, opposed the legislation, saying it could result in confusion over who is responsible for an animal and limit the rights of animal owners, including in cases in which someone else is charged with the abuse.
Supporters say those issues are easily handled by a judge.
The law was created by the Legislature and went into effect late last year. "Desmond's Law" was named for a dog that was beaten, starved and strangled by its owner, Alex Wullaert, who admitted to the violence but avoided jail time under a probation program for first-time offenders that allowed his record to be wiped clean.
UConn law student Taylor Hansen, one of the volunteer advocates, this week was the first to testify in court, with Rubin by her side, making arguments in a dogfighting case involving three pit bulls.
One emaciated dog with scars from fighting had been found wandering. The other two were found in a home filled with animal feces, rotting food and evidence of dogfighting. One animal had to be euthanized.
Hansen described the abuse dogs suffered, talked of studies linking animal and human abuse, and explained why she believed the man accused of raising them to fight, 33-year-old Raabbi Ismail, of Bloomfield, should be barred from the same program Wullaert used.
Judge Omar Williams listened and read through a letter the UConn advocacy team had written. If Ismail's record were eventually wiped clean, Hansen argued, there would be nothing to prevent him from getting back into dogfighting.
Williams agreed the charges were serious. But after a 45-minute hearing, he found the crime was not on a list that would automatically prevent Ismail, who had never been arrested before, from participating in the program, known as Accelerated Rehabilitation.
On Hansens' suggestions, the judge did impose conditions that will prevent Ismail from owning, breeding or having dogs in his home for at least the next two years. He also will have to perform 200 hours of community service, but nothing involving animals.
Outside the courthouse, Ismail declined to comment to a reporter.
Rubin and Hansen said they weren't discouraged by the outcome.
"It showed the animals do have a voice," Hansen said. "We are able to have an impact on the proceedings."
The animal advocates are an official party to the case. They can do investigative work prosecutors often don't have time for, such as interviewing veterinarians and other witnesses. They also make arguments, write briefs and make recommendations to the judge.
"It has really assisted me in doing my job," said assistant state's attorney Thomas O'Brien, the prosecutor in Ismail's case.
Just having the advocate in court represents a sea change in the handling of animal abuse cases, said Annie Hornish, the Connecticut director for the Humane Society of the United States.
Connecticut's experiment is being watched by other states, Hornish said. And Rubin said she has gotten inquiries from lawmakers elsewhere asking how it might be copied.
A few states, including neighboring Rhode Island, allow veterinarians to advocate for animals in court, said lawyer and animal advocate Thomas Page, but only Connecticut has legal advocates.
According to a legislative report, there were 3,723 animal abuse or cruelty cases charged in Connecticut between 2006 and 2016. Eighty percent were not prosecuted or were dismissed.
Nineteen percent resulted in convictions, and 55 cases — the remaining 1 percent — resulted in the defendant being found not guilty.
"We hope with this law in place, we will start to see much better procedural outcomes," Hornish said. "We are very excited that judges seem to be taking advantage of it."