James M. Sandlin is the first person in Buncombe County to be convicted of felony cruelty to animals under a new state law that took effect a little more than a year ago.
The Fairview man had admitted to shooting a stray dog four times on June 22, 1999, and finishing it off with an ax. He claimed, however, that he killed the dog “as quickly and humanely as possible” and only axed it after he ran out of bullets.
After his first trial ended in a mistrial in March, a second jury convicted him two weeks ago April 4 in Buncombe County Superior Court.
At the time of the shooting, Sandlin, who’s now 25, was doing landscaping work in Black Mountain with three high-school students, who later testified against him.
At his first trial, Sandlin said he’d killed the dog because it had chewed on a plastic drainage pipe and threatened someone at the housing development where he was working. However, he admitted that he’d never seen the dog do either of those things. Sandlin also maintained that his boss had told him to get rid of the dog. But his boss, Jeff Peek, testified that he’d never told Sandlin anything of the kind. In fact, Peek said he’d fired Sandlin after the incident.
High-school student Chris Sloan testified that two dogs were running in the woods when Sandlin pulled a .22-caliber rifle out of his vehicle and shot one of them from a distance. Although he didn’t know the breed, the dog was good-sized with a light-brown coat, Sloan said.
Sandlin handed Sloan an ax and asked him to climb a hill with him, to where the dog lay. The animal was trying to lift up his head when Sandlin shot him again, testified Jamil Smith, another student working on the crew.
“He was slow to pick up his head, because he was hurtin’,” said Smith.
When Sandlin hacked the dog in the neck with the ax, Smith testified that he heard the dog make an “er” sound. By the time Sandlin had finished, Sloan said there was only a little bit of skin connecting the dog’s head and neck.
“He was quite happy about it,” Sloan testified. “He was smiling.”
Later, at lunch, Sloan and the other boys said Sandlin took the ax out of his truck and pretended to lick it.
Apparently stumbling over the wording of the indictment, the first jury deadlocked over whether Sandlin was guilty of a misdemeanor or a felony, with nine voting for a felony and three for a misdemeanor conviction.
In preparation for the second trial, the district attorney’s office reindicted Sandlin, after rewording the indictment. This time, the jury took less than half an hour to convict him, reported Judy Covington Crawley — who attended both trials, along with other animal-welfare advocates.
Sandlin received a six- to eight-month suspended sentence, three years of supervised probation, and a $100 fine. Because he had no prior record, Sandlin could not have faced active time for the crime, said Assistant District Attorney Don Gast.
Crawley, who founded the local Tyson Act Committee — which advocates for better treatment of companion animals — was happy that Sandlin was convicted of the more serious offense.
“By this being a felony, it says to people … this is what’s going to happen if you abuse your animals,” Crawley declared.
But Crawley said she wished that he had also been ordered to undergo counseling and perform community service. That’s something her committee may focus on in future cases, she said.