A jury found a Tarpon Springs man not guilty of animal cruelty late Tuesday after he shot and killed a mixed breed pit bull he said attacked him and his dog while they were out on a walk.
On January 1, 2021, Harry Lee and his German Shepherd puppy Ari went for a walk on private property in the Tarpon Springs area owned by one of Lee’s friends. Along the way, they ran into Henry Passerini walking his 6-year-old pit bull mix dog, Chester. Passerini did not keep Chester on a leash, allowing him to move freely.
In court on Tuesday, the jury was tasked with finding out what happened next.
Passerini said Chester approached Ari and began sniffing. The pup became scared and Lee told Passerini to get Chester and threatened to shoot the pit bull mix. Passerini said he ran to his dog and knelt beside him when Lee pulled the trigger.
“My dog just stood there and looked at his dog,” said Passerini, now 64, in court. He said he never saw his dog snap at Lee.
But Lee told the jury a different story.
He said Chester attacked him and his pup, bit the pup’s paw, bit Lee’s groin and left holes in his shirt. And he said Passerini did not intervene.
“At the time I had no choice. It was either shoot the dog or get bitten,” said Lee, now 61.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident but did not arrest Lee. A deputy responding to the incident told jurors he saw stab wounds on Lee’s puppy’s paw.
Typically, criminal charges are filed after law enforcement has referred a case to the prosecutor’s office for prosecution. According to court documents, however, deputies did not refer the shooting to law enforcement after their investigation.
Lee was charged with one animal cruelty charge after Passerini contacted the Pinellas-Pasco district attorney’s office, according to court documents. Prosecutors later filed charges.
Lee moved to have the case dismissed, arguing that it falls under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which prevents people from being prosecuted if they kill someone to defend their life or protect themselves from “grievous bodily harm.”
A district judge and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with prosecutors, saying the Stand Your Ground Act does not apply to animals, and the case went to trial this week.
It took the jury about two hours to reach a verdict late Tuesday night. A charge of first degree animal cruelty carries a fine of up to 364 days in county jail. Prosecutors had made an offer of parole before the case went to court.
“We’re proud of how we presented the evidence, fought the case and gave a voice to the dog that was killed,” Assistant District Attorney Alec Waid said. “We understand that the jury simply saw it differently.”
Passerini said the result was “disappointing”.
“It was a tragic thing that could have been avoided,” he said.
Lee declined to comment. Defense attorney Ricardo Rivera said law enforcement found no wrongdoing in the case and the verdict also upheld his client.
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“This case was never about animal cruelty, it was about self-defense,” Rivera said in a statement. “Mr. Lee and his pup were attacked by a 110 lb. dog. Mr. Lee was given the choice of being mauled or protecting himself.”