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Dramatic Courtroom Session Tackles Dog Euthanasia Case

The fate of Rocco, a Somerville dog sentenced to be euthanized for biting a man, is being determined in Somerville District Court.

Rocco. Courtesy: Rose Walsh
Rocco. Courtesy: Rose Walsh
Posted 9:35 p.m., Jan. 15, 2014:

It had all the components of a courtroom TV drama: touching testimony from a victim, blistering cross examinations, objections and overrulings, and, at its center, a matter of life and death.

In this case, the life or death of a dog, Rocco, who bit a man on Oct. 31, 2013, and was sentenced to be euthanized.

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To provide a brief summary of what happened, Rocco, a 109 pound bullmastiff, got out of his house on Calvin Street and attacked another dog, a German Shepherd. During the incident, Rocco bit the German Shepherd's owner on the hands. The victim ended up spending five nights in the hospital and received numerous stitches.

Rocco was put into the city's kennel, and the Somerville Police Department held a public hearing about the matter on Nov. 14, after which Capt. James Donovan determined Rocco was dangerous and should be humanely euthanized. 

Rocco's owner, Rose Walsh, appealed the decision, and the matter was heard by Somerville District Court Clerk Magistrate Robert Tomasone on Wednesday.

A two-and-a-half hour court session


It was like a mini trial that lasted two and a half hours, even though the hearing wasn't technically a trial.

Jason Grossfield, assistant city solicitor for the city of Somerville, defended Donovan's decision to euthanize Rocco, saying it was rooted in public safety.

David Abbott, Walsh's (and Rocco's) attorney, mostly through pointed cross-examinations, sought to show that Rocco wasn't dangerous or aggressive toward people, that the Oct. 31 biting was an isolated incident, and that the city didn't have sufficient reason to order the animal to be euthanized.

Meanwhile, Rocco has been kept in the city's kennel since Nov. 4, 2013, where he still remains. It was revealed during Wednesday's hearing that the city hasn't allowed the dog to be examined by a professional dog behaviorist and that Walsh has been given occasional, but not regular opportunities to visit Rocco.

Tough cross-examinations


Several witnesses were called to the stand during Wednesday's hearing, including the victim of the Oct. 31 biting incident, Somerville animal control officers April Terrio-Manning and Rachel Taylor, and Capt. Donovan.

Terrio-Manning said the unprovoked nature of the biting incident and the severity of the bites convinced her of the need to euthanize Rocco.

However, in her experience with Rocco at the kennel, she said, "He's well behaved, in the way he's good with human beings. He tends to be a little fractious with other dogs." Later she said, "There's been no aggression towards people in the kennel," but she added, "He's obviously dog aggressive in my professional opinion."

Terrio-Manning said that in her eight years as an animal control officer in Somerville, she's recommended a dog be euthanized less than 10 times.

Abbott asked some tough questions of Terrio-Manning during cross-examination. He asked if she were familiar with the terms territorial aggression and redirected aggression, asking, "Isn't [this] the classical example of redirected aggression?"

The two sparred over whether or not Rocco and the German Shepherd were "fighting" at the time of the biting incident and whether the biting was unprovoked or the result of the victim getting his hands in the middle of the fight.

It was revealed during cross-examination that Terrio-Manning recommended Rocco be euthanized before meeting the dog. Abbott asked, "Do you think you should have met Rocco before determining his fate?"

He asked if Terrio-Manning took steps to have Rocco professionally evaluated by a behaviorist; Terrio-Manning didn't recall.

In regard to Rocco being "fractious" toward other dogs in the two-and-a-half months he's been in the city's kennel, Abbott said, "Dogs that are in chain link kennels can tend to get fractious."

Taylor, Somerville's other animal control officer, said of Rocco, "He's very well behaved with myself" in the kennel, but she said "the severity of the bite" on Oct. 31 meant the dog was a threat to public safety. She said it was the worst bite she's seen in her five years as an animal control officer.

Were the dogs fighting?


Abbott's examination of Donovan was filled with calls of "objection" from Grossfield. Donovan, as part of his responsibilities on the Somerville Police Department, presided over the Nov. 14 public hearing and wrote the decision that Rocco should be euthanized.

He and Abbott argued about whether or not Rocco and the German Shepherd were "fighting" when the victim was bitten—the significance being that if they weren't fighting, the bites were unprovoked, but if they were fighting, the bites could have been the result of the victim getting his hands in the middle of it. The victim, in his testimony, used the term "fighting."

Donovan said he felt the only way to protect the public safety was through euthanasia.

As a result of Abbott's questioning, Donovan said it was his decision to deny Walsh the opportunity to have Rocco professionally evaluated by a dog behaviorist.

Victim's story


As a result of the bites he received on his hands, the victim spent five nights in the hospital, received 40 stitches, suffered nerve damage, had a second round of surgery and is now undergoing occupational therapy to build back the strength in his hands, the man said during his testimony. He's no longer able to walk his dog due to his injuries, he said.

Somerville Patch has decided not to name the victim to protect his privacy and to prevent harassment against him.

The victim said he was walking his 70-pound German Shepherd down Calvin Street at dusk when, suddenly, Rocco bounded out of a door that had been left ajar and attacked his dog.  

What happened next was a bit of a blur, he said. He said his dog "was barking and fighting back" and that "I tried to separate them."

He said he was knocked over and Rocco clamped down on his right hand and then bit his left hand. After the incident, two gentlemen helped him by staunching the wounds with paper towels and escorting him to a nearby hospital, he said.

Abbott asked if he would have been bitten had he not tried to separate the fighting dogs. The victim said he didn't know.

Now what?


In his closing arguments, Abbott said Walsh has agreed to a number of steps to prevent such an attack from happening again, including muzzling Rocco and ensuring that he's only walked by a responsible adult 21 years old or older.

He pointed to the unique circumstances surrounding the attack: Walsh wasn't home at the time (she was at work), the door had mistakenly been left ajar, the German Shepherd triggered a territorial aggression in Rocco, and the victim, getting his hands in the middle of a dog fight, was bitten. "This was a constellation of events" that led to the biting, he said, calling it an "isolated incident."

Grossfield said, "There was [no] justification to this attack."

Tomasone, the clerk magistrate who heard the arguments, must now write a decision that will either uphold the Somerville Police Department's conclusion or overturn it.

That could take a couple of weeks. After he releases his decision, either party could appeal it. If that happens, the case would go before a trial judge at Somerville District Court.
Elise Kline January 16, 2014 at 08:12 PM
Rose Walsh is a courageous young woman. I have known her for many years. She goes to collage, works full time and has always taken care of Rocco. It was an unfortunate series of events (friend having a Halloween party and leaving the door ajar so that Rocco ran out to defend his territory).Rose was at work. She has not given up on Rocco. The saddest part of the story is the response of Captain Donovan and the animal control officer. They seem invested in putting the dog down rather then salvaging the animal's life. He has never bitten before. Rose, my daughter and Rocco went camping at a popular state park. There were other campers there with dogs and there were no incidents. Rocco, incidentally, likes people and would not have bitten a person under normal circumstances. He does not deserve to die.

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