Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert

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Criminal prosecution of fatal dog attacks

The prosecution of dog owners on criminal felony charges (usually manslaughter) are much more common nowadays, particularly in the wake of the 2001 San Francisco dog mauling . Nevertheless, these kind of cases are often difficult for prosecutors to successfully prosecute because of the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the dog owner(s) must have know about the vicious and dangerous propensities in the dog(s) prior to the incident.

DNA analysis, linking the victim to the dog via blood or saliva, is increasingly being used in these kind of cases (e.g. the 2004 conviction of an Columbus, OH. physician for the death of a 54 y.o. lady by his Rottweilers). Significantly, it appears that not all dogs who engage in a fatal attack possessed prior vicious propensities, as demonstrated in the 2004 mauling of an 8 y.o. boy in Washington state. Information about a dog’s dangerous tendencies may be gleaned from various sources which include a behavioral history of the dog – and if the dog is available – a behavioral examination and testing by an animal behavior expert.

Below are a  selected sample of cases, some which are rather dated, but nevertheless  they are representative examples. In these cases, most charges and subsequent convictions have been for manslaughter. The are three murder convictions to date in the United States, all upheld on appeal, in Ohio in 1994, Kansas in 1997, and the Diane Whipple matter in California in 2002. Two cases in which the defendant was acquitted of manslaughter were in South Carolina (2000) and Pennsylvania (2004).

This page will be updated only on occasion, because criminal prosecutions of owners for dog bite fatalities are now rather common. The outcome of these legal proceedings can be found elsewhere on the internet. 

State v. Munn (Florida, 1947). Pit bull breeder convicted of manslaugher for mauling death of women who was attacked by eight of his dogs.

State v. Turnispeed (Georgia, 1988). Defendant convicted of involuntary manslaughter due to mauling death of 4 year boy by defendant’s pit bulls who escaped from defendant’s property.
State v. Smith. (Arkansas, 1993). Defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and was sentenced to 3 years in prison for the 1991 mauiling death of a 50 year old lady by his roaming pit bulls.

State v. Powell (North Carolina 1993). Defendant convicted of involuntary manslaughter when his two Rottweilers killed a jogger.

State v. Mann (Ohio, 1994). Defendant convicted of first degree murder when he ordered his attack trained pit bull to attack his girlfriend.

State v. Davidson (Kansas, 1997). Defendant convicted of second degree murder when her Rottweiler dogs escaped from her property and mauled to death a child waiting at a school bus stop.

People v. Speagle. (South Carolina, 2000). Defendant acquitted of manslaughter by jury verdict. Case involved pack of dogs, some of which – the prosecution believed – were the defendants. Dogs mauled to death a middle age man walking in the early morning hours in a rural neighborhood to a 7-eleven store.

People v. Noel, Knoller.(California, 2002). San Francisco Dog Mauling)- Both defendants guilty of manslaughter by jury verdict for mauling death of Diane Whipple by defendant’s Preso canario dogs. One of the defendants was convicted of second degree murder. Subsequently, this controversial murder conviction was reversed on appeal by the trial judge.

People v. Schneider. (California, 2002)- Defendant guilty of manslaughter by jury verdict. In this case defendant’s Rottweiler mixed dogs escaped through a fence that was in disrepair into the adjacent neighbor’s yard and mauled an 8 y.o boy to death .

State v. Crawley (Ohio, 2004). Defendant, a physician, sentenced to six months in prison for 2003 mauling death of a 54 y.o women by his two rottweilers. Defendant’s dogs were linked to the attack through DNA analysis.

State v. Hansen (Pennsylvania, 2004). The defendant’s 3 y.o grandaughter was killed by two rottweilers who escaped from their pen. Defendant was aquitted of most serious charges stemming from this fatality, including involuntary manslaughter.

State v. McCuen (Colorado, 2004). In a high-profile case, a 33 y.o. mother was convicted of being in possession of a dangerous dog(s), resulting in death. McCuen was sentenced to 6 years in prison for an incident in which 3 pit bulls she owned with her estranged husband attack and killed a neighbor in a rural area outside Denver. The husband is awaiting trial on similiar charges.

State v. Large (Virginia, 2005). A high-profile case involving 3 pit bull which maulled and killed 82 y.o. Dorothy Sullivan. Sullivan was brutally attacked: Parts of her scalp were torn away, chunks of flesh were torn from her arm and thigh, and there were bites on Sullivan’s ankle down to the bone. The case marks the first time in Virginia in which a person was convicted of manslaughter for the actions of their dog. At one point, the defendant had 13 pit bulls living in her doublewide trailer. The defense argued that the defendant did not own all of the dogs involved in the attack on Sullivan and that she did not know her dogs were dangerous. An FBI expert testified that human hairs found in that dog’s digestive tract had the same microscopic characteristics as hairs found on several of Sullivan’s brushes and combs. The defendant, Deanna Large, was sentenced to 3ys. in jail.