Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Judge Listens to Pet Advocates in Animal Cruelty Cat Hoarding Hearing (Cheryn Smilen)

Cat advocates animal cruelty Miami Dade
Charlene Grall (Board Member Cat Network) Karina Goldenberg  (cat rescuer/volunteer),
Michael Rosenberg (President of Pets Trust), Christine Michaels (President of Riverfront Cats)
Yatir Nitzany (volunteer and lead organizer for "Justice for Smilen Cats")
inside courthouse after Smilen hearing

An entire year and half has gone by since Cheryn Smilen was arrested in March 2018, the self proclaimed cat rescuer who shockingly turned out to be a hoarder. Over 30 cats were starved to death in an efficiency in North Miami with no air condition, food or water in over 30 days. The discovery was so shocking that both the lead investigator at Miami Dade Animal Services and police detective declared it the worst case of animal cruelty in Miami. An entire animal/pet advocate community was devastated. One of their own was not a rescuer but an evil monster.  The news spread instantly, in a digital second. A Facebook page was created to track the case. (Warning some pictures are graphic!).

 In the first hearing, Smilen was released on bond. Cat rescuers who knew and interacted with Smilen patiently waited for the wheels of justice. Behind the scenes, prosecutors and defense attorneys do a dance. Communications back and forth to get a sense of what the other wants.  Deals are often made to prevent court trials and from sending offenders to prison, due to lack of prisons. Extensive probation time, we learned, is the norm.

Our founder and President, Christine Michaels was asked to join the core group in leading efforts to maintain visibility of the case. The group met with the prosecutor to learn about the law and proceedings and alerted the pet community of updates.  Prosecutor Schwartz promised to advise us of when a next hearing would occur.

On August 28, 2019, a hearing was requested by  Smilen's  attorney to ask for "downward departure".  In layman's terms it means that the defense attorney wanted to ask for probation for Smilen claiming she suffered from depression and anxiety. Prior to the hearing behind the scenes, the prosecutor offered 15 year probation, no jail time. (This was before our group met with Prosecutor Schwartz and urged to go to trial). The attorney for Smilen, considered it too excessive. The prosecutor essentially offered "take it or leave it". There would be no other deal. The defense chose not to take the deal and to take their chance on minimal probation. We awaited the hearing date.

In a hearing, the judge may allow the public to speak.  Thankfully Judge Millian did allow residents to speak as long as they maintained courtroom decorum. Christine was asked to speak on behalf of cat and animal advocates.

In a passionate and well prepared speech, Christine stood before the judge and introduced herself and the group and carefully alerted him who was following this case and why.

I represent not only my fellow animal advocates here in this courtroom, and Miami but all over. Your honor an entire nation is watching this particular case
As volunteers that are in the trenches of pet rescue, we come across and see and hear about animal and pet cruelty cases, but the police repeatedly tell us over and over and over again, '"there is not enough evidence to arrest". In the case of Cheryn Smilen there is overwhelming evidence...."  

She continued to share some details of the gruesome discovery. Her conclusion was for a maximum punishment. (Technically it would be 30 years considering the guidelines that Smilen does not have prior record.  It is doubtful she will get that much if convicted, but one can only hope a jury will convict and the judge will seek a punishment that fits the crime within the law).

Other speakers included Yatir the organizer, who personally interacted with Smilen and offered insight that the defendant had a team of supporters around her that offered to help Smilen feed and care for the cats. That Smilen's actions were deliberate. Michael Rosenberg also spoke and let the judge know there would have been 200 supporters in the courtroom if there was space.  The tiny courtroom only allowed for 20 outside observers.   Detective Judy Webb spoke last and stunned the courtroom with almost an entire recount of the horrific conditions.

The judge listened intently.  When the five speakers were finished, the judge asked the prosecutors for their recommendation of sentencing. They offered 365 days plus many years of probation. Now this may see insignificant to us animal advocates, but we learned going to trial is a gamble.  Smilen could get less jail time.  We urged the prosecutor to go for it. We wanted to take that risk.

Holding back tears at the detective's observation, advocates clutched each other's hands just as families do when the judge is about to announce the fate of a killer and took a deep breath. When the judge ruling came he rejected the defense's motion. A huge sigh was released.  (No clapping or signs are permitted in courtrooms).

Prosecutors Kathleen Hoague and Helen Page Schwartz asked the judge to sentence Smilen, if convicted, to at least 364 days in jail, followed by probation and forbidding her from working with animals. By his ruling, Milian signaled even that possible sentence was too low.  Miami Herald article 

The case now goes to trial. Exactly what we wanted.  A case this horrific, a new low in Miami should not be swept under the rug with probation in our opinion in understanding the law. The trial date was set for December the 9th. A tiny step forward.

After the hearing, local media that was covering the event inside the courtroom , came outside to interview organizers.

News coverage appeared on all local stations.  Organizers are still collecting the video.

animal cruelty laws
Christine Michaels interviewed by Channel 4 local news after the hearing

We await the trial date.  In the meantime, we hope Miami Dade follows the example of another county in Florida, Brevard county in taking swift action in addressing and arresting those who commit animal cruelty.