A district court judge did not try to hide his feelings as he was sentencing five North Carolina men in an illegal dogfighting operation that involved more than 150 pit bulls.
Did the judge’s expressions of opinion create enough of a cloud to potentially have the convictions overturned or the sentences shortened, even though the suspects pleaded guilty?
“Either the dogs have to be eliminated from the world or the people who fight the dogs or both, but there needs to be an intervention by the law and it’s going to start here,” U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said.
All five of the convicted men are using the judge’s words as the basis of their appeal of their sentences. Their argument being that he should have recused himself from the case due to his “deep-seated antagonism” toward people who engage in dogfighting and the pit bull breed itself.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in the case later this week.
The five men were part of a group charged in an indictment alleging various dogfighting and drug-trafficking offenses. They each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Animal Welfare Act and at least one other charge.
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The judge passed down sentences that ranged from a little under four years to nine years.
During their sentencing phase, Boyle made multiple references that defense attorneys say show his strong personal feelings about dogfighting, and it interfered with his duty to remain impartial.
At various points, Boyle characterized people who engage in dogfighting as mentally ill and belonging to the “Stone Age.”
“Participation in this is a manifestation of some form of mental illness. If you treat animals in a barbaric and cruel and torturous way, then there’s something wrong with you,” he said.
Boyle didn’t stop there. He also offered his thoughts about pit bulls, opining that the dogs are often bred by humans for fighting and are known for having aggressive temperaments.
“There is no good aspect of them in my opinion,” he said. “I think the breed needs to be reduced and eliminated.”
Four of the men’s sentences exceeded federal sentencing guidelines for dogfighting. The fifth man received at the top of the sentencing range: nine years in prison. In addition to a dogfighting charge, he also pleaded guilty to distributing heroin and aiding and abetting.
Federal prosecutors argued in court documents that the sentences were appropriate for the criminal conduct the men admitted to when they pleaded guilty.
Federal sentencing guidelines are advisory only; judges are permitted to sentence above or below the guideline range, based on the circumstances of the case.
According to the Associated Press, prosecutors said more than 150 dogs were used in the dogfighting operation. When investigative teams searched the homes of four of the defendants, they found break sticks used to pry open dogs’ jaws, canine treadmills, weighted collars, whips, heavy training chains, steroids and other medical supplies. Many of the dogs had injuries and had to be euthanized.
“The court communicated its belief that regular, law-abiding people do not enjoy the blood spectacle of two dogs brutally attacking each other, sometimes for hours,” prosecutors wrote in a legal brief filed with the 4th Circuit. When the judge’s remarks are considered collectively and in context, it is clear that the judge was simply expressing the well-supported view that animal fighting is a gruesome activity that Congress has decided has no place in society.”
Lawyers for those convicted argued that Boyle’s sentencing decisions “were driven by his emotions about dogfighting and his view that those participating in it were unredeemable barbarians.”
Joseph Gilbert, an attorney who represents the individual drawing the harshest sentence in his appeal, said he and the lawyers for the other men believe that Boyle’s comments during the sentencing demonstrate that he should have disqualified himself.
“Every judge has an obligation to recuse himself or herself whenever they feel so strongly about an issue that it might affect their ability to objectively and fairly hear the case,” Gilbert told The Associated Press.
Under the plea agreement, his client waived his right to appeal any sentence within the guideline range. Gilbert said Boyle’s personal feelings about dogfighting tainted the sentencing process, which should prevent enforcement of the agreement to waive his appeal.
Boyle has had previous comments from the bench raise suspicion and cause a controversy.
In 2017, the 4th Circuit reversed an immigration fraud conviction of an Algerian native who entered the U.S. through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. This program offers green cards to citizens of countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.
The 4th Circuit found that during the trial, Boyle expressed skepticism about the program and a “negative impression” of people who participate in it.
The AP reported that the court found Boyle’s “judicial intervention” was “improper,” denying the man the opportunity for a fair and impartial trial.
Defense lawyers in the dogfighting case may have a difficult time persuading the 4th Circuit to order new sentencing hearings, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
Turley said recusal is a decision largely left up to individual judges.
“The difficulty for the defendants is not just the recusal case law, but the stage at which these comments were made,” Turley said. “The greatest danger is when there is a question of bias during a trial or during the finding of critical facts. In this case, the defendants admitted their guilt.”
In one of the more notable cases involving dogfighting, former NFL star Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for funding and leading a dogfighting ring. Vick only served 21 months of his sentence. Vick’s case did not include drug trafficking, hence the lighter sentence in comparison to the 5 men in Boyle’s court.