Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Cheryl E. Traum, Judge. Defendant appeals his conviction for animal torture.
Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, Dennis D. Hendrickson and David A. Adams, Assistant Appellate Defenders, for appellant.
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kevin Cmelik, Assistant Attorney General, Michael J. Walton, County Attorney, and Jacob Marshall and Christopher Scott, Student Legal Interns, for appellee.
Heard by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Vaitheswaran and Tabor, JJ.
Zachary Meerdink appeals his conviction for animal torture arguing the State's evidence is insufficient to support his conviction. We reverse and remand for dismissal of the case.
I. Background Facts and Prior Proceedings.
In January 2012, the State charged Meerdink with animal torture under Iowa Code section 717B.3A(1) (2011): "A person is guilty of animal torture, regardless of whether the person is the owner of the animal, if the person inflicts upon the animal severe physical pain with a depraved or sadistic intent to cause prolonged suffering or death." Meerdink waived a jury trial, and in April 2012, a bench trial commenced.
Jamie Holladay, the mother of three young sons, testified her boyfriend Meerdink stayed at her apartment most of the time. Holladay was still dating Meerdink at the time of trial.
After Meerdink had shoulder surgery, Holladay bought him a four-month-old Boston terrier. Holladay testified the dog had accidents, "a lot of stomach problems, " and problems with "jumping up on people and [the dog] was starting to get aggressive and bite people." The dog had bitten Holladay and her kids, and the dog's behavior was getting worse.
Several months later, Meerdink needed a second shoulder surgery. Upon his release from the hospital in December 2011, Meerdink had limited use of his shoulder and arm and was on prescription pain medications. Meerdink and his dog stayed with Holladay, and she helped with his post-surgery care. One evening, Holladay and her boys left to run an errand. Meerdink called her, asked where the Lysol spray was, and explained his dog had an accident by the door. Holladay testified he did not seem upset.
Upon her return, Holladay met Meerdink walking toward the front door of the apartment with the dog under his arm. She asked Meerdink if he was okay, and he did not respond. Holladay testified:
Q. At the time [Meerdink] was walking down the stairs to go outside with [the dog], you said he looked at you?
A. Before he [got] to the stairs.
Q. And you told the officers he had a blank look on his face, correct? A. Yeah.
Q. So he didn't look eager? A. No.
Q. Happy? A. No. He just looked like he was not conscious, like he was out of it.
A few minutes later, Meerdink returned carrying a baseball bat. Holladay testified Meerdink did not seem happy, nor did he look satisfied, rather "he looked more confused." Further, "He didn't say anything. I asked him where the dog was and he just told me that the dog was dead." She "kind of panicked" and "got hysterical, " continued to ask what happened, and got no response from Meerdink. Holladay packed up her kids, drove around, and called Meerdink's mother. Subsequently, Meerdink texted Holladay and asked if she wanted him to leave. She replied, "Yes." Meerdink left.
When Holladay returned to her apartment, she did not see a baseball bat. During a phone conversation the same evening, Holladay told Meerdink, "if the dog was dead . . . he needed to come and get the dog." Meerdink replied, "No, " and the conversation ended. Holladay called the police and was crying when the officer arrived. The officer testified he found the dead dog in the tall grass. Approximately ten feet away from the dog and about twenty yards away from the apartment building, the officer found a pool of blood in the short grass. The officer did not note a blood trail between the pool of blood and the spot where the dog's body was found, and he did not note any injuries to the dog's body other than a head injury.
Holladay testified about her conversation with Meerdink the next day:
[Meerdink] told me that the dog had bit my son and . . . I had been on him about trying to get the dog to not do that because their dad is kind of protective and I didn't want any problems with [their dad], so I think he kind of felt pressured ...