New Trial to Begin in Boynton Beach Dogfighting Case

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Dean Willbur Jr., the attorney representing Norfus, added that the state's claims required a giant leap in common sense. "Our clients live three-quarters of a mile from the Boynton Beach Police Station," Willbur said. "Their neighborhood is about seven blocks from Boynton Beach animal control. [Prosecutors] say they fought dogs for almost ten years and no police officers ever saw anything? They don't have anybody to testify that they saw a dogfight or heard a dogfight," Willbur told the jury. "They don't even have someone who can say they saw anybody transporting dogs for the purposes of dogfighting."

All of the paraphernalia the state claimed was for dogfighting is perfectly legal, the defense argued. "If you find someone fighting dogs, are you going to find the possibility that they have treadmills? The answer is yes," Willbur would say after the trial. "Are you going to find the possibility that they have tethers for the dogs to hold onto with their teeth? The answer is yes. There's no doubt about that. But conversely, can you find people with treadmills and tethers and other implements that these defendants have that don't fight dogs? The answer is yes to that also."

Each item had a perfectly sound explanation, Willbur told the jury. The treadmill and spring pole were used for giving the pit bulls standard exercise. The breakstick was simply a safety precaution. The medicines and staple gun were used to take care of the dogs, of course. And the scratches on the dogs' faces and legs came from years of wrestling chainlink fences.

Oh, and that bloody pit? "It's actually a whelping pen," Willbur said, "where young dogs are placed after they're born so they won't crawl out and so the other dogs won't hurt the young pups." The blood on the carpet was from afterbirth and the bleeding associated with whelping, he said, and besides, the rug didn't even fit the pen the way the state set it up in court.

Willbur also suggested that race may have played a part in the case. "I don't think it's coincidental that the Michael Vick case came up, with all the publicity around that, then this arrest occurs with as little evidence as they have as far as actual dogfighting, and we have three black defendants."

Then the defense attorneys called a vet of their own. Dr. Dale Porcher, from West Palm Beach, breeds Staffordshire bull terriers — a close cousin of the pit bull — and competes in the American Kennel Club show circuit. He has shown his dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in Madison Square Garden, the Super Bowl of dog shows. He was, defense attorneys told the jury, "possibly the most qualified veterinarian on pit bulls in the country."

Porcher testified that he had never met the defendants but that it was not out of the question for breeders of nonfighting show dogs, like his, to have the equipment found in the raids. He told the jury that every responsible pit bull owner should have a breakstick or some other plan in case these powerful dogs should happen to latch on to something. And several breeds of dog legitimately work out on treadmills, Porcher explained. "Just because you have a heavy bag hung up in your garage doesn't mean you're a prizefighter," he said after the trial.

Porcher feared his business would suffer when people in the community saw his name associated with the defense team in a dogfighting case but said he testified because he saw this case as a possible precursor to breed-specific legislation. "I owed it to the people who have pit bull-type dogs and don't fight them," he would say afterward, "which is 99.99 percent of them."

The trial lasted five days. Then the fate of Denson, Green, and Norfus was in the hands of the jury. Deliberations began on a Friday afternoon.

Liz Roehrich attended most of the trial but also had to tend to the constant calls, the bottomless pit of paperwork, and all the animals passing through her office.

She was worried when the jury did not quickly return a verdict Monday morning. (Despite the drama of Hollywood, more than 90 percent of criminal trials end with a guilty verdict.) That Tuesday, she was sitting at her desk, smoking a Camel No. 9, when she got a call. The jury was back. When she put the phone down, the usually talkative Roehrich was speechless.

After three days of deliberation, the foreperson told Circuit Judge Krista Marx that the jury could not reach a verdict. They couldn't agree on whom to believe. Two wanted to convict. Four wanted to acquit. They were hopelessly deadlocked.

A new trial is now set for December. This time, the state plans to call even more experts to convince the jury that they're looking at dogfighting paraphernalia.

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Michael J. Mooney