Jan 9 04 - Prosecutor's Office Finishes Investigation

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Burlington County Prosecutor and Medford Township conclude investigation

January 9, 2004.

Burlington County Prosecutor Robert D. Bernardi and Medford Township Public Safety Director, Edwin Wood announced today the results of their joint investigation concerning the death of a Medford Township, N.J. woman killed inside her home on September 7, 2003 by a dog she had adopted shortly before her death.

The investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Valerie Deswart, age 66, of Stokes Road Medford Township, N.J. began when the Medford Township Police were summoned to the victim’s residence on Stokes Road when Dane Corell, age 67, who lived there with her, returned home and found her lying on the floor of their bedroom, after apparently having suffered traumatic head injuries. The County Medical Examiner later performed an autopsy, which determined that Valerie Deswart died as a result of bite injuries to her neck due to an attack by her dog, a full-grown Doberman Pincher that she had recently adopted from the Associated Humane Societies Animal Shelter, located at 124 Evergreen Street, Newark, New Jersey. The animal was quarantined immediately and subsequently destroyed.

The investigation conducted by the Medford Township Police Criminal Investigation Division along with the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office has now resulted in charges being filed against the manager of Associated Humane Societies.

Denton Infield, age 42 of 1070 North Avenue, Elizabeth, N.J. the manager of the Associated Humane Societies Animal Shelter located in Newark N.J. has been charged with Tampering With Evidence, a crime of the 4th degree. Mr. Infield was arrested in Newark on December 18, 2003. The defendant was later released on his own recognizance. The case is now pending presentation to a Grand Jury for review.

Mr. Infield was charged based upon his criminal conduct, which occurred during the investigation of the death. On September 8, 2003, detectives from both agencies served a Grand Jury subpoena on Associated Humane Societies at its Newark facility. This subpoena required the immediate production of all documents pertaining to the animal in question. While the detectives were waiting for the records to be produced, the defendant, Denton Infield, surreptitiously ordered a clerical employee to alter one such document by deleting information relating to the dog’s prior vicious behavior. The investigation discovered that the animal had initially been brought to the AHS shelter after the dog had attacked the wife of its previous owner without provocation, in North Plainfield in May 2003. The deleted portion of the AHS records were notations that the owner had requested, authorized and paid the shelter for the destruction of the dog. However, the dog remained kenneled at the facility for 87 days and was then purchased by the Medford victim on August 27th, 2003. The altered form of the AHS record was turned over to the investigating detectives along with other documents.

Thereafter, the employee who had been directed to falsify the record later informed her superiors of what had happened and AHS provided a true and accurate copy of the document to the Prosecutor's Office.

Additionally, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office has conducted a thorough review of New Jersey law and of the law in other jurisdictions with statutes equivalent to New Jersey’s in order to determine whether the conduct of AHS and its employees could be considered to constitute a criminal homicide under N.J.S. 2C:11-4b(1) (Reckless Manslaughter). The results of this exhaustive legal research indicate that there is no precedent in any state, including New Jersey, which imposes liability on an individual or entity which sells or gives an animal to a third party where the animal subsequently kills or injures another person. Pet owners have been held criminally liable where their animals have caused injury to third persons if they are reckless in controlling their animals (i.e. consciously disregarding a substantial, unjustifiable risk that the animal will cause injury). However, there is no legal precedent for holding an individual criminally responsible for personal injuries caused by a vicious animal when that individual does not have actual, physical control over the animal at the time of the attack.

Under the New Jersey reckless homicide statute, the actor must consciously disregard a known risk. The risk must be a substantial risk of death, not merely a possibility. This office has determined that it would not be able to prove such conscious disregard beyond a reasonable doubt as would be required in order to sustain a conviction.

It is not anticipated that any further criminal charges will be filed in the matter.

The absence of criminal penalties under New Jersey law in situations such as this case by no means precludes victims like Valerie Deswart or her surviving family from pursuing civil remedies.

Source:  Burlington County Prosecutors Office - Press Release


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