Public defender: No room for ‘hate speech’ in Carbondale dog-killing case
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A 13-year-old boy made his first court appearance Wednesday to hear charges connected to allegations that he gunned down a yellow Labrador retriever in a residential neighborhood near Carbondale last month, while the judge denied his attorney’s emotional plea to close the hearing to the public.
With his mother and father seated next to him, the teenager heard Garfield County District Judge Paul Metzger advise him of the charges, which include aggravated cruelty to animals, second-degree burglary of a dwelling, theft, possession of a handgun by a juvenile and third-degree criminal trespass. The teen, wearing a camouflaged hoodie, did not speak during the hearing, often swiveling in his chair with little or no facial expressions.
The suspect later was transported back to the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center, a juvenile detention center in Grand Junction, where he has been in custody since Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies arrested him Jan. 24.
The most severe counts filed by prosecutor Tony Hershey are the cruelty to animals and burglary charges, which would be felonies were the defendant an adult. The suspect, however, is being charged as an juvenile. Under Colorado law, juveniles older than 12 years old can be sentenced to a maximum of two years in the youth division of the Department of Human Services for charges that would be considered a felony or misdemeanor if an adult committed them.
While the advisement portion of the hearing lasted just a few minutes, much of the near half-hour hearing concerned the Public Defender’s Office’s efforts to close the hearing to the public, in particular the media.
Public defender Elise Myer argued that allowing reporters access to the juvenile’s hearing would only inflame the court of public opinion. She called some online comments about the juvenile “hate speech” and said further media attention would incite additional vitriol.
“The comments on The Aspen Times website are horrific. Horrific,” she said, her voice trembling. “I might get emotional, truly. We’re talking about a child. People who have no knowledge of who this child is, people who know nothing of his background, his history of where he comes from, of how he comes from, of the life he has been handed, of the work that his family has done. They know nothing of it, yet they call for vengeance.”
Myer handed the judge printed copies of the online comments, noting that one referred to the boy as a “person in training to be a serial murderer.”
“This is hate speech,” Myer continued. “This is not what we allow in our community. This is not just the transferring of information, and giving the public access to information. I hate even saying this in front of (the defendant), because he doesn’t even get it. These are harmful words. To me it’s emotional because I understand the bigger issues that come with this case and the other cases. The community that writes these hateful messages has no understanding of what we’re dealing with here in court.”
Myer also said the suspect has been indicted publicly without going through the judicial process, while further media coverage potentially would cause “tremendous harm” to the defendant and create a “circus” along the way.
The juvenile’s court-appointed guardian agreed the hearing should be closed. Hershey, however, argued that closing the hearing would only escalate speculation about the case, as well as the vitriol surrounding it.
“Obviously the entire community, from Garfield County to Pitkin County, cannot be here,” Hershey said, adding that closing the hearing would create a “star chamber proceeding.”
He added, “There are crazy people posting things. I don’t control that, but I think it’s the light of day, the First Amendment shining in this courtroom, that informs the people who are working today and can’t be here and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize he was 13. I didn’t realize he was a juvenile.’”
Metzger sided with Hershey, saying he would keep the hearing open because it was the defendant’s first appearance and few details would be made public about the allegations.
“However, I appreciate the defense’s position and the concerns of the guardian,” he said. “And during future hearings … we’ll have to give this further consideration as to what is in (the defendant’s) best interest.”
Myer said she would file a motion for a protection order to keep future hearings closed. The suspect is due back in court Feb. 28, at which time an evaluation from the Department of Human Services will be provided for his future placement.
Speaking during the hearing on behalf of her husband and daughter, Kirsten Pamp-Friel said they considered their slain dog, Otis, a family member. Their other yellow lab, Daisy, was not hurt during the incident.
“(The juvenile) needs to be gone from this community for causing the grief, the heartbreak, and the trauma for so many,” she said, prompting one of the three objections from Myer during her statement.
Metzger told Pamp-Friel that such remarks were not appropriate for this stage of the case.
The “scars run deep,” Pamp-Friel said, from when the juvenile allegedly fired two shots at the yellow lab, which was on the family’s front porch of their 7 Oaks home, on Jan. 24. The family was not home at the time when the boy allegedly used a scope rifle to fire the fatal shot after he allegedly fled the Garfield County Courthouse, where he was due on other charges from 2017. The boy left the courthouse while his guardian was in the bathroom, later allegedly breaking into a home in the Glenwood Springs area and stealing at least one firearm before hitching a ride into the Crystal River Valley area. The Friel family had a surveillance camera on their property and it purportedly showed the boy firing an errant shot from a handgun before training the rifle on the dog.
“Through all of the tears and traumas of losing our family member, I find myself trying to understand what the defendant has been through in his life to cause him to murder a dog,” she said. “I also find myself looking for something for him to relate to. In one moment he stole the stars from the sky for a 7-year-old little girl who loved her yellow lab brother to the moon and back.”
She continued, “I am guessing that he has had great pain in his life for him to do something like this. I am guessing he has had great loss, as well. Objectivity is a hard thing, and I do think that he has the chance to not let this define his life. He has the key to his own cage, and despite my sadness, he does need to pay for what he has done. I hope that he chooses a future for himself and his family, but for now, we are all just wondering why.”
Myer, meanwhile, expressed her mounting frustration with the court for keeping the hearing open, allowing the charges to be read aloud, and permitting what came off as a victim-impact statement during the advisement procedure.
“I believe the court has treated this particular juvenile in a manner that I have never seen another juvenile be treated,” she said.
Replied Hershey: “I disagree. The court has acted very appropriately.”
After the hearing, Pamp-Friel and her husband, Tom Friel, said they were disappointed that they witnessed no remorse expressed by the juvenile.
The suspect’s parents, who were joined by friends in support, declined to comment.
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A technical glitch Monday that led to long waits for COVID-19 booster shots at a clinic at Buttermilk should be fixed in the near future, and any Pitkin County resident who wants a booster will get one.