SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A 12-year prison sentence for a man who dragged a horse behind his truck has touched off a debate over whether a new animal cruelty law goes too far, when even homicide can result in lighter penalties.
Georgenan Lopez, who is in his early 20s, is the first person convicted by a jury under the law implemented in August 2008 in response to complaints that the island is indifferent to cruel treatment of animals.
The criticism gained traction — and publicity — in 2007 when authorities seized dozens of dogs from public housing projects and threw them to their deaths from a bridge.
Lopez's attorney said Wednesday that he will appeal, calling the sentence excessive, unusual and cruel, since convictions for crimes like second-degree murder often yield lesser sentences.
"They are comparing an animal to a human being," lawyer Julian Claudio said. "The animal didn't even die."
Prosecutor Andres Fernandez said the horse was dragged for about 15 minutes behind the truck as it tried to keep its balance and kept falling down. He said it had a rope around its neck that was tied to the vehicle.
He declined to comment on the sentence except to say that the judge was following the law.
Osvaldo Toledo, president of Puerto Rico's Association of Attorneys, said the length of the sentence in a case where the animal survived sets a dangerous precedent.
"If you tell me the animal fell to the floor and was dragged like a bag of potatoes, I would say, 'Look, you deserve those 12 years,'" Toledo said. "I don't approve of what the man did, but (the sentence) has to be evaluated."
He acknowledged that animal cruelty is a problem in Puerto Rico, but said more education programs and less extreme sentencing are the answer.
Toledo added that he would ask lawmakers to review the animal cruelty law to ensure that penalties are in line with the crime.
According to a transcript of the sentencing, Judge Jose Montijo told Lopez he had an attitude problem and did not communicate well with people, and noted that the accused faced burglary and drug charges previously.
Judicial spokesman Daniel Rodriguez said Montijo would not comment.
Since the dragging incident last February, the mare has gained weight but still limps and can never be ridden, said Lisa Embree, who runs a horse rescue group in northwest Puerto Rico that adopted the animal, dubbed "Little Miracles."
She said she feels sorry for Lopez's family, but praised the tough sentence as an important measure to reduce animal abuse.
"They are living beings," Embree said. "They deserve to be treated as such."