A New Jersey woman pleaded not guilty in court Friday to charges of starving and abandoning a 1-year-old pit bull that has since become an Internet celebrity.
The judge in the case judge warned animal advocates that he would not let emotion rule the case.
Kisha Curtis entered her plea through an attorney during a brief hearing in state Superior Court attended by several news outlets and some members of an advocacy group that is seeking stronger animal abuse laws. About 40 people demonstrated outside Essex County Veterans Courthouse in support of the dog, nicknamed Patrick because he was found the day before St. Patrick's Day.
Curtis didn't speak in court, but state Superior Court Judge William Cassini departed from protocol and addressed the notoriety the case has attracted.
"I know there has been quite an amount of emotion stirred by this event," he said. "But those emotions, from where I sit, don't trump the rule of law. My role is to ensure that fairness is achieved, not only for the defendant but for the state."
The dog was found at the bottom of a trash chute at Newark's Garden Spires apartment complex on March 16, emaciated and too weak to stand or walk. Since then, he has begun recovering slowly at an animal hospital and has been the subject of thousands of supportive letters and emails. A Facebook page, "Prayers For Patrick," had more than 4,500 "likes" Friday afternoon.
"We would like to see tougher laws in New Jersey," Marlo Colson, one of the organizers of the Facebook page, said outside the courthouse. "Massachusetts made animal abuse a felony in 2004, and we'd like to see New Jersey follow suit."
Curtis was charged in March with two fourth-degree offenses for "tormenting and torturing" an animal that carry an 18-month maximum jail sentence, and two disorderly persons offenses that each carry a sentence up to six months. The Essex County Prosecutor's Office hasn't presented the case to a grand jury for a possible indictment but is expected to do so once additional witnesses are interviewed.
"At this juncture, the case is going to the grand jury," Chief Assistant Prosecutor Thomas Fennelly said.
The criminal case has given rise to a custody battle over the dog involving the Associated Humane Societies, the city of Newark and Garden State Veterinary Specialists in Tinton Falls, where Patrick is being treated. AHS filed a motion this week claiming it has legal rights to the dog. Cassini on Friday gave the other parties 10 days to file a response, and a hearing is scheduled for early June.
The city wants the court to authorize the animal hospital to provide Patrick with a foster home until the criminal case is resolved.