Fines, brief jail terms handed down in Nevada horse shooting
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Two defendants in a horse slaughter case that prompted international outrage were sentenced Monday to brief jail terms and fines. A third defendant was fined and put on probation.
More than three years after dozens of wild mustangs were gunned down near Reno, District Judge Michael Griffin imposed 39-day jail terms on Scott Brendle, 24, and Darien Brock, 23, ordered probation for up to two years and fined them $2,000 apiece.
Anthony Merlino, 23, was placed on one year’s probation and fined $1,000. All three Reno men also must complete 100 hours of community service and split a $1,500 restitution charge.
Harsher sentences had been sought by prosecutors and by the Humane Society of the United States. But Griffin said he based his decision on what was known for certain — not “what I think might have happened.”
Griffin also noted that tests on the dead horses showed many of them died from rounds fired from types of guns that the defendants didn’t own.
The judge also said he had received “tens of thousands” of letters from people upset about the case, including some letters turned over to authorities because of death threats against the defendants.
The case began at Christmastime 1998, when carcasses of 33 wild mustangs were found in the hills east of Reno. Multiple felony counts were filed against the three former Reno high school buddies.
But the most serious charges were dismissed in court proceedings, and the Nevada Supreme Court ruled last year that there was no probable cause for dozens of counts against each defendant.
Finally, in a plea bargain, Brendle and Brock pleaded no contest to single gross misdemeanor counts of killing or maiming an animal, and Merlino pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace.
Brendle and Brock, former Marine lance corporals who received less-than-honorable military discharges because of the case, could have been jailed for up to one year. Merlino, a construction worker who admitted he shot one injured horse to put it out of its misery, could have been jailed for up to six months.
After the sentencing, Deputy District Attorney Sharon Claassen said she remains convinced the three were responsible for more than the death of one horse — “but if I can’t prove it, it doesn’t matter what I think.”
Claassen also said the plea agreement was the best way to resolve the case. Though she said she wanted “a better dose of jail time” for the defendants, all now have convictions on their records.
Brendle, Brock and Merlino didn’t comment after the sentencing. Brendle’s lawyer John Ohlson and Brock’s attorney Marc Picker both said their clients shouldn’t have received jail time.
Merlino’s lawyer Scott Freeman said critics of the case hadn’t bothered to read the lengthy files that showed how weak the evidence was, adding, “These people have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society said he was disappointed that the sentences weren’t harsher because the horse shootings “were so heinous and out of bounds.”
“It’s important that sentences be strong, to send a signal to everyone that this conduct is totally unacceptable,” Pacelle said. “We consider these acts to be barbaric.”