By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The owner of four pit bulls that ferociously attacked and killed a woman as she walked or jogged near her Southern California home has been charged with murder, Los Angeles prosecutors said on Thursday.
Legal experts said the case represented an unusual instance of prosecutors charging a dog owner with murder in a fatal mauling, especially when the owner may not have been present for the attack.
Alex Donald Jackson, 29, was arrested a day after the May 9 attack in the community of Littlerock when Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies searching for the dogs involved said they had found a marijuana "grow operation" at his home.
Eight dogs were seized from Jackson's house, including six pit bulls and two mixed breeds. Some were found with blood on their coats and muzzles, said Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's homicide division.
He said forensic DNA tests later established that the blood was that of the victim, Pamela Maria Devitt.
Devitt had been walking or jogging when a pack of pit bulls attacked her on the side of a road in Littlerock, in the sparsely populated high desert of Southern California about 65 miles east of Los Angeles.
The 63-year-old victim died in an ambulance of blood loss after suffering 150 to 200 puncture wounds, Corina said.
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Samantha MacDonald said authorities had received at least three other reports of Jackson's pit bulls attacking people since January.
Jackson was also charged with cultivating marijuana and other drug charges and was being held on $1 million bail. He was scheduled for arraignment on Friday on the attack charges and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Stan Goldman, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said it was rare for the state to seek a murder conviction against a dog owner over a fatal attack, saying such cases are more often prosecuted as involuntary manslaughter or gross negligence.
"In order to rise to the level of murder you have to show that the dog owner knew of the great danger they were creating, and that's the tough part," Goldman said.
"It's almost like any dangerous condition you keep around the house," he said. "If you keep an ultra-electrified fence and don't warn people, the theory could be that you are subjectively aware you are creating a danger but don't do anything about it."
Goldman said defense attorneys could likely argue that their client was not aware that his dogs could kill, which prosecutors might try to counter by pointing to the previous complaints against the animals.
In 2001, Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old top collegiate lacrosse player and coach, was fatally mauled by two Presa Canarios - a dog breed that can grow as large as 130 lbs (60 kg) - in a hallway outside her San Francisco apartment.
The dog's owners, a married couple who lived in the same apartment building, were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and the wife was found guilty of second-degree murder.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)