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Image Courtesy of Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP

DNA evidence can be used in a variety of cases, helping investigators pinpoint whether or not an individual was at the scene of a serious crime.  DNA evidence is widely used to determine convictions in human cases – but can we use the same evidence in those involving animals?  And, if it can save the life of an innocent man, what about an innocent canine?

Jeb, is a two year old service dog in St. Clair, Michigan.  His current owners, Kenneth, a 79 year old Air Force veteran and retired drywall business owner who suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and his wife Penny, brought Jeb to their home after he was discovered chained inside a shed in early 2016, when he wasn’t yet one years old.  His previous owner had died, and the rest of his family didn’t seem to want him, so he was sent to a rescue agency.  The volunteer who rescued the Belgian Malinois puppy, Kandie Morrison, immediately thought he would be perfect for her father, Kenneth.  Kenneth developed shaky legs later in life due to a neurodegenerative disease, and Dr. Karen Pidick, the family’s veterinarian, worked with Jeb, training him to help with Kenneth’s stability.

Image Courtesy of CNN
Image Courtesy of CNN

For about eight months, Jeb lived happily in a home full of other pets, including three additional dogs, seven cats and a handful of chickens.  His owners claim he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

However, on August 24, 2016, Jeb was accused of taking the life of a neighbor’s dog, and was removed from the Job home by animal control, sentenced to death.  Evidently, the couple’s neighbor of more than 30 years, Christopher Sawa, saw Jeb standing over the dead body of his own dog, Vlad, a 14 lb Pomeranian, and had assumed the worst.

The family was convinced Jeb could not have committed such a crime.  However, on September 19, they prepared themselves for trial before Judge Michael Hulewicz at district court in St. Clair County.

At the hearing, Sawa testified it wasn’t the first time Jeb had scared him.  He claimed Jeb always barked and he was genuinely afraid of the canine.  By contrast, his Vlad was “like a child” to him.  Job admitted that Jeb had gotten away from him that morning, running toward a pond with the other dogs, looking to enjoy a swim.  However, Edward Marshall, the Jobs’ attorney said that there simply was no solid evidence linking the dog to Vlad’s death.  In fact, the area was known to have foxes, and there was also a stray dog spotted nearby around that time.

Image Courtesy of Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP
Image Courtesy of Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP

It wasn’t enough.  At the conclusion of the statements, Judge Hulewicz did in fact find Jeb to be a “dangerous animal” and made the difficult decision to sentence the canine to death.

The Jobs’ just couldn’t accept Jeb’s fate.  So the family decided to explore using DNA evidence to exonerate him.  They said they had thought to check if Jed’s DNA matched that which was found around Vlad’s wound prior to sentencing, but decided not to proceed because they were under the impression the Pomeranian had been cremated.  However, through statements made in court, they had discovered Vlad’s corpse was actually still being preserved in a freezer.  For $416, the Jobs’ were able to send a sample to Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida.

The center’s findings saved the beloved dog’s life.  The college had found the DNA did not match Jeb.  It, in fact, matched another unidentified dog.  Jeb was allowed to return to his home in St. Clair the following week after Kenneth and Penny signed an agreement promising to make sure he wouldn’t leave their yard unleashed and the couple would have a secure fence surrounding their yard moving forward.

Sources:

DNA saves dog from death penalty

DNA evidence helps free a service dog from death row

 

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