Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp said Monday he’ll be criticized for granting judicial diversion to a Gray man who tortured his family’s Yorkshire Terrier to death, but given the man’s efforts to better himself it was the right thing to do.
Dustin Ricky Harrell, 22, 1178 Old Stage Road, Gray, pleaded guilty last year to one count of aggravated animal cruelty, a Class E felony that carries up to two years in jail, and asked the judge for diversion.
After months of delays to obtain a background check on Harrell from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, he was finally sentenced to 18 months under judicial diversion.
That means after 18 months of supervision in the community, Harrell can have the conviction erased from his record.
“This case is troublesome to me,” Cupp said at the start of Monday’s hearing. “No matter what I do here, I can’t bring that little puppy back. It was awful that anybody could do what Mr. Harrell did to that dog.”
In a September hearing, Cupp listed to Harrell testify about being on drugs the night he killed Honey, the four pound Yorkie mix, but that he was fully aware of what he was doing at the time and there was no excuse for his actions.
Harrell said that he was upset that his girlfriend broke up with him and he used the dog to get sympathy from her. During a four-hour period, Harrell threw the dog down a flight of steps multiple times, held its head under water multiple times, put her in a clothes dryer for about four minutes and taped her mouth shut when she began to cry because her leg was broken.
In between the different injuries Harrell inflicted, he would comfort the dog. She eventually died in his arms.
All that happened Nov. 3, 2011, and then he lied to his family and said Honey got hit by a car when he took her out to the bathroom.
It wasn’t until a relative found the tape used on Honey’s mouth that Harrell’s family further questioned what happened. His father eventually called the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to report the incident.
The case brought about a storm of emotion from animal rights activists and supporters. Cupp said his office had received more than 3,000 e-mails and messages about the case from people urging him to incarcerate Harrell.
In explaining why that wasn’t the best option, Cupp said Harrell would only have to serve 5.2 months of the 18-month sentence.
“The problem with the state of Tennessee is there is no truth in sentencing,” Cupp said.
With the diversion, Cupp said he will have “more control” over Harrell’s activities. Harrell must comply with all rules of probation for the 18 months, and if he violates any rules Cupp said he’ll serve his sentence.
While not diminishing Honey’s life and the way she died, Cupp said, Harrell has — on his own — done more than most defendants do when the judge orders it.
After being bonded out of jail on the charge in 2011, Harrell voluntarily attended drug treatment in Chattanooga, went through truck driving school and obtained a truck driving job.
“I’m not sure what more we could ask any defendant to do,” Cupp said. “For me to do anything other in this case than grant him diversion is an injustice.
“I cannot comprehend what that puppy went thorough. I don’t even want to think about it,” Cupp said.
“The other thing is he’s under my control. If he doesn’t play by the rules in any way, I’ll make him serve his sentence.”