Dustin Harrell, the Johnson City man accused of torturing his family’s 4-pound Yorkshire terrier to death, was appointed an attorney and told to get a job Monday by a Sessions Court judge. The judge later threatened to jail an angry spectator for disobeying his instructions to a crowd of about 30 animal activists who attended the court proceeding.
Harrell, 21, 1175 Old Stage Road, was charged with aggravated animal cruelty on Nov. 3 after his father called the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and reported an “intentional killing of an animal.”
According to WCSD Investigator J.A. Miller, during the investigation, Harrell described a four-hour period during which he alternately abused and comforted the dog, including repeatedly throwing the dog down a flight of stairs, repeatedly holding its head under water and finally placing it in a clothes dryer.
At his initial court appearance on Monday, Harrell told Sessions Court Judge James Nidiffer he could not afford an attorney and asked for a lawyer to be appointed for his defense. After reviewing Harrell’s financial statement, Nidiffer questioned why he was not working and how he had made bond for his release from jail. Harrell said he was released on a bond secured by property and was looking for work. Nidiffer appointed the Public Defenders office to his case, telling Harrell, “I will appoint you an attorney but I expect you to pay for it. I expect you to get a job.”
District Attorney General Tony Clark told Nidiffer his office was prosecuting the offense as a felony and is ready to proceed to a preliminary hearing at the earliest possible date. Nidiffer scheduled the hearing for Dec. 14.
Before closing the hearing, Nidiffer instructed a crowd of about 25 volunteers and supporters from the Bridge Home No-Kill Animal Rescue group in Kingsport, who attended the hearing to demonstrate support for penalties that show no tolerance for the abuse or neglect of animals, and others in the courtroom not to speak to Harrell or otherwise cause a disruption as he was attempting to talk to his lawyer outside the courtroom.
Disregarding Nidiffer’s instructions, a man who said he was not affiliated with the rescue group, spoke discourteously to Harrell’s father as Harrell and his attorney were entering a conference room. After being escorted to the exit by deputies, the man turned and made an obscene gesture toward the conference room. In response, WCSD Captain Larry Denny escorted the man back into the courtroom to address his actions with Nidiffer.
“Just mad about that boy killing that little dog,” the man said when asked by Nidiffer why he had ignored his warning. Nidiffer asked Denny if he would charge the man with disorderly conduct and noted that as a judge he could fine him $50 and place him in jail for up 10 days for contempt of court. Denny said he would not arrest the man on the condition he tell others who attended the hearing about the consequences of his actions. Nidiffer told the man any repeat of his behavior would result in his immediate imprisonment.
Regina Isenberg, president of the nonprofit Bridge Home group, said that she had never met the man who caused the disturbance and that her group was only there to show support for the dog, Honey, and support for penalties that will better deter abuse and neglect of animals. “We’re just here for the love of Honey,” Isenberg said. “It’s absolutely not to be tolerated, something like this.”
Harrell’s father, Ricky Harrell, who reported the dog’s killing and later posted the property bond for his son’s release from jail, said his concern is that his son receives help for problems including drug abuse and the impact of abuse he suffered as a child.
Ricky Harrell said he believes the pain his son suffered as a victim of child abuse and his use of drugs to mask that pain contributed to his abuse of the dog and to two previous criminal charges. Dustin Harrell was charged with domestic violence for threatening his father with a shotgun in April 2008 and with breaking items in their home in November 2009. “We’ve had our problems,” Ricky Harrell said.
Harrell’s 2008 domestic assault charge was dismissed in January 2009 upon his compliance with an agreement announced to the court and his November 2009 charge was dismissed in December 2009 after his father failed to appear in court as witness in that case.