Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Braveheart Trial: One Year Later

It's been one year since "The Braveheart Trial." Jury selection began January 27, 2015.

I'm reposting my "Snapshots" from the trial for the occasion and to reflect on the progress we have made in a year.

I'll say this: that trial, and the experience of sitting through it, made a huge impression on me and one that has stayed with me almost daily ever since. The raw emotion on all sides was simply incredible. Even more important, I think, is that so many people in the area and across the country followed Braveheart's story and the awareness this dog has brought to the issue of animal abuse is unfathomable.

In the past year we have made a little progress in the animal rescue community; rescue groups such as LA Baby Mommas and many others are working tirelessly and have saved countless lives. The focus must also be a proactive one, however and the message to spay and neuter your pets doesn't seem to get through. You simply can't change the minds of adults set in their ways. I witnessed an adult adopting a puppy a few weeks ago and he didn't want to take advantage of the neuter voucher that came with the dog; the man insisted that it would not be necessary. He very nearly lost the adoption right then and there, had it not been for his wife's assurance that the animal would be neutered.

The key will be in educating the young, I believe. There has been change at the Caddo Animal shelter which hopefully will lead to good things there and to more animals being rescued. The euthanasia rate there is ridiculously high, but now that more animals are being approved for rescue, that should come down.

One program that is making a difference is PEP, or the Pet Education Project. This group goes into schools and teaches about responsible pet ownership: food, water, shelter, care and love. They've reached almost 60,000 kids in the area which is pretty awesome.

Another huge plus is the growth this year of Nova's Heart, an organization that helps the homeless care for, and keep, their pets.  Now associated with Hope Connections in Shreveport, Nova's Heart is very near being able to care for every homeless person's pet in the city; they provide leashes, food, blankets, and other items for the animals.

There is progress.

I hope that you'll read through this once again and relive the tensions, the compassion, the humor, and the love that we all felt as we all fought for Justice for Braveheart.

Today, Braveheart continues his mission as cheerful ambassador and educator in responsible pet ownership.  His Facebook page is filled with "Pittie smiles" and his expressions reveal the love he has come to know and gives in return.

He truly is a miracle dog and is truly a brave heart.

January 29, 2015:

"It's just a dog."


"Redirected aggression."  This is the defense attorney's explanation for why Gabriel Lee was on trial.  As I understood her explanation, he was a victim of "redirected aggression" which is primarily a feline condition and occurs when a cat sees something outside its reach that causes aggression; unable to reach the original stimulus, the cat will lash out at whatever it can reach.

Apparently, according to the public defender, "all these people" are lashing out at Gabriel Lee after seeing something so horrible (a clinically emaciated puppy near death) that they must have a victim for their aggression.

Ergo, Gabriel Lee is the victim here.



Jury selection.  I'm watching the potential jurors as the public defender questions, grills, explains points of law, prods.  (I was not there for the DA voir dire).  Some are very interested; some look nervous, some anxious, and once the bailiff had to wake one of them up.  They are a true mix of our society.  It looks like the system is working...

The public defender is a dead ringer for Jennifer Garner. I bet she gets that a lot.

Is it intentional that voir dire is so repetitive?  That the attorneys repeat the same thing over and over?  The power of suggestion, perhaps?  Do they teach you to talk down to jurors in law school?  To be patronizing?  I honestly don't know -- I do understand that as an attorney dealing with jury selection you are dealing with all levels of intellect and it's important to gather as much information about your jury pool as you can.

Both sides scribble notes.  Sitting behind the public defender, I could see her legal pad (I couldn't read it!) where she had divided the yellow sheet into boxes - one for each potential juror.  I suppose the name of each one was in each box and copious other notes that I could glimpse.  Both sides wrote constantly.  Notes, notes, notes.


The judge was a large, serious man with a wonderfully expressive face which he kept in "poker face"
Ronda Spataro, left, with Brave hours after he was found, and Brave, right, now.
mode most of the time.  An occasional smile to the bailiff who brought his (coffee?  tea?) to the bench.  A directing glimpse from judge to bailiff, to a nodding potential juror...the bailiff draws water from the cooler and takes it to the juror who lifts head in another attempt at attention.

The judge had a wonderfully resonant voice and as boring as jury directions were when it came time to charge the jury, I listened.

He must have read those directions to hundreds of juries yet he still read with expression.


After voir dire, day two.  Sitting on the patio at Nicky's unwinding and looking back on the day with the Braveheart crew.  The courtroom had been freezing, absolutely freezing, all day.  The sun on the patio felt good.

The table is filled with chips, salsa, white zinfandel, Dos Equis, tea, ashtrays.

"What is that you're drinking?" Bo asked me.

"Dos Equis.  Here, taste it."

"I think I will!" and takes a sip.  "Hey, I think I'll have one of those!"

Ronda drapes her arm out of the wrought iron patio screen to keep smoke away from everyone; she wraps her arms around the rungs and takes a drag.  Spirits are pretty high and everyone feels good about the way things are going.

"This is the first time I've relaxed since Friday, since the phone calls started," Bo said.

Six jurors and one alternate have been picked.  Five females and one man.  Various ages and race make-up.  We are happy with the jury.  We think they were all pet owners which looks to be an encouraging sign.  We don't talk about the jury much; we talk about Doris's parakeets, the cleft palate puppy Ronda and Bo are fostering, about other ongoing animal cruelty cases everyone is following.

Ronda snags our server and they get into a Spanish lesson about how to say "heart worms" in Spanish.  "There is no word for 'heart worms' in Spanish," Ronda explains.  They eventually figure out something that will suffice.

We sit for several hours on the patio, late lunch, a few drinks, a little down time.

It is nice.


You cannot wear your glasses perched atop your head in the courtroom.

It is a rule.

Not even reading glasses.


Before the courtroom is opened each morning, it is inspected and cleared.  Everyone waits in a sort of holding cave in the basement of the courthouse.  There is no cell service in there.  Zilch.  Zero.

Obviously there is no cell phone use in the courtroom.

On the first day of the actual trial there were two girls sitting in observation.  One was from New Zealand and another from California.

"This is like going to the movies for us," one explained.  "We like to go to trials.  We have no idea what this one is about!"

Bo had turned to talk to them and find out who they were.  If it's someone who follows the Braveheart page or someone from a rescue group, he likes to acknowledge them and thank them for coming.

He gave them a very brief summary of the case and showed them a quick picture of Braveheart on his phone.  They were very relieved to know the story had a happy ending.

The girls were looking at pictures on their phones before court started.  The bailiff approached:

"You aren't taking pictures, are you?"

"Oh no sir!  I was just showing her a picture."

The bailiff smiled and moved on.


Court is a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

Court "begins" at 9:30.  Which means 9:45 or 10.  Except there are always procedural matters and so court begins with a sidebar conference.  Then another recess for fifteen minutes.

Everyone rushes outside to smoke.  We've learned that the handicap entrance/exit is the quickest way - no stairs to fool with.  We still have to go through the metal detector and take off belts when we come back in.

"Give me your lighter."

"Where are your cigarettes."

"How long is the break?"

"I'm freezing in there."

Because Ronda was on the list to testify, we couldn't talk to her until after her testimony.  She stood off by herself to smoke.

I forgot and thought she was maybe upset so I took a couple of paces over,

"You okay?"

She nodded yes.

Jean:  "HEY!  Get back over here!  She can't talk to us!"


Ronda stubbed out her cigarette and we went back inside.


Opening statements.  The ADA is tall, lithe, graceful.  She looks a little like Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.  She strides in her slim gray suit to the podium, makes eye contact with the jurors who look at her expectantly, and she smiles at them.  She holds their eyes a moment.  It's a warm, sincere smile and she has them.  She begins her statements which quickly became discordant and hard to follow with the multitude of defense objections.

Is the jury getting frustrated, too?  I wonder.

The ADA speaks very quietly, evenly and keeps going as the judge overrules one objection after
Caddo Parish Courthouse

She speaks maybe ten, fifteen minutes, and wraps up; her co-counsel whispers something to her and the ADA returns to the podium to point out to the jury some things she wants them to pay special attention to during testimony.  One of these things brings a quick objection from the defense which prompts a lengthy sidebar conference.

Another delay.

The jury is ready to get going, to hear the evidence.  This is frustrating.


Opening statements. The defense begins her opening statements.  She speaks with ease and with confidence; she's doing her job, but she sounds patronizing to me.  That's just me.  The jury is listening to her closely.

She has PowerPoint slides which she puts up to keep the jurors on track.

"Why Are We Here?"

Another one has the text of the statute the defendant has been charged against.  She explains very methodically what the charges are and spends a great deal of time telling them what the judge will say to them later.  She becomes repetitive and some jurors gaze off.  Looking around the courtroom.  Looking at the spectators.

Her co-counsel and the ADA scribble notes incessantly.

There is much strategy to all this!


The defendant is sitting in front of me at the table with his attorneys.  I can only see the back of him
Gabriel Lee: Braveheart's abuser
except for when he enters and leaves the courtroom.

He spends the entire trial in a black leather jacket with orange strips somewhere on the shoulders or arms (I can't see them), white dress shirt, and slacks.  All of his clothes, including the jacket, look much too large for him.

He listens attentively to the testimony and his attorneys who both whisper to him frequently.  He sometimes slumps down in his chair, his hands clasped in front of him.  Sometimes he sits up and snatches a tissue from the box in front of him and blows his nose.

During closing arguments, he shakes his head repeatedly as the ADA lists the numerous things he omitted doing for Braveheart, like calling a vet.  At one point he let out an exhortation of frustrated air:  "Pffffffffttt!"


During the defense presentation, the attorney called up at least three, maybe four, close family members to testify that the defendant is a great guy and "he loves dogs!  Very caring!"

"Yes, I would leave my dogs with him!"

I thought, "Well, of course they're going to say that!  It's his close family and his girlfriend of ten years for crying out loud!  Is this supposed to be persuasive?"


"Redirected Aggression"??


KSLA posted a news story after day one in which they referenced the wrong Braveheart page.  They referred readers to "Justice for Braveheart," a dog in another state.

How hard is that to check?


Subway for lunch on Day One.  The line is ridiculous, but it's walking distance from the courthouse, and it smelled really good.

Jean marshalls some tables together outside and homesteads them while we all stand in this line.  Mamma Patt and I eventually reach what we think is the front of the line and move to the counter only to be rebuked by the "sandwich artist" to move back in line until called.

My bad.

We eat quickly.  There is much sharing of cookies and talk turns to the opening statements.  You're dying to know what everyone else thinks, but Ronda is sitting there and she's not yet been recused from the witness sequestration order so she gets nervous about the trial talk and moves away.

It has come much too far for this all to be called a mistrial on some technicality.

She moves to the curb to smoke.


All the Braveheart crew carry tiny bottles of hand sanitizer with them that have purple, green, and yellow painted on the outside of them.  They are part of a fabulous fundraiser one of their young volunteers has created.  Bo told me that she has raised huge sums of money for animal rescue organizations.

After every smoke break or recess, out comes the hand sanitizer bottles and everyone slathers it on.  That's not a bad thing.

Youth can be so inspirational!


On day one of testimony there were plenty of seats in the courtroom.  People came and went through the day and the deputies kept the back couple of rows "reserved."

Because of the high emotional impact of this trial there was a very clear law enforcement presence in the courtroom most of the time.

But when the verdict was read?  There were at least 24 armed deputies in the courtroom.  There was one on each end of each row, lining the walls, several in front, one or two at the door, the usual ones behind the bar, and I'm sure quite a few outside.

It was like the OJ verdict was coming down.


One of the first witnesses was the vet tech who found Braveheart in the locker.  She and her husband owned the storage facility / buildings where Gabriel Lee had rented a slot to refinish cars.  The building he rented apparently had a concrete floor and a garage bay door at each end; you could drive right through it.  Testimony indicated that there was grease of some sort and a fine sanded dust all over the floor.

She testified that she and her husband told Mr. Lee not to come back on the property because he had not paid his rent; that was 9/10.  On September 11, 2013, the witness and her husband went to the locker to change the lock and found a light on and a radio playing.  Because no renter was paying rent anymore to cover these utilities, they went in to turn them off and that's when her husband found the dog.

You know the story.

They thought he was dead.

They were going to bury the dog "on the property" and she had a shovel to pick him up; that's when he blinked.  He was not dead.

Her first thought was to take him to the emergency vet clinic.

Wouldn't yours have been the same?


The defense made much ado about whether the facility was a garage, a storage building, a locker, blah, blah, blah.

I get her point - her point was it wasn't Storage Wars.  It was a "place of business," she said, where people came and went each day to work.

What difference does it make?

Did you see the picture of the dog?


"Redirected aggression."



Ronda Spataro was nervous about testifying.  She had come so far to get to this point.

This I noticed about Ronda:  she has the capacity to sit very, very still.

Those benches are hard.  As Doris said, "It's like sitting in a Baptist church all day!"

The first day I sat next to Ronda and I fidgited; crossed one leg and then the other.  Shifted my weight.  Sat on my hands.  Leaned forward.  Rocked my head from side to side to crack the stiffness out of my neck.  Looked around ... the jurors....the judge...the bailiff.....the attorneys.....what time is it?

Ronda sat motionless.  Her expression set ("poker face"), staring straight ahead, hands folded in her lap, leg crossed.  Never moved.  Sometimes she would pull the arms of her sweater down and fold the sleeves around her arms and resume position.

How can anyone be that still for that long?



When Ronda finally was able to testify, near the end of Day One, she brought tears to my eyes.

The ADA:  "We've spent all day talking about the puppy Braveheart.  Do you know Braveheart?"

Ronda:  "I DO know Braveheart!"  and she smiled.  It was pure love.

It doesn't sound like much, but there was absolutely NOTHING in that room at that moment except her love for Braveheart.

It was everything.

The jury was riveted.


Loraine does most of the posting to the Braveheart Facebook page and on breaks would try to mange texts and put up a quick post about the proceedings.

Loraine has the sweetest face and smile; she's the most positive person I've ever met.  She radiates peace.

Obviously the Braveheart t-shirts were taboo, but did you know that orange is the symbol color against animal abuse?

Loraine and I both showed up in orange on Tuesday.

She carries a prayer rock in her purse.  As we went through these metal detectors and purse scanners multiple times each day, once she pulled this rock out of her purse and showed it to me.  It was a gift someone had given her.  It's a palm sized dark grey smooth rock with silver painting on it.

On the first day of testimony the media was there at the lunch break.  It was KSLA who had erroneously directed folks to the wrong Braveheart page (they corrected that later).

Loraine spoke to them for the group; she's always so eloquent and kind.

Bo:  "Loraine, when have you ever not known exactly what to say?"

She cuts her green eyes at him, smirks, throws a sassy comment his way and then writes pure eloquence on the Facebook page.


Loraine works with Nova's Heart - an organization that helps feed and care for the pets of the homeless in the area.

Walking to lunch one day, Bo spots a familiar face: a homeless guy with his dog.  Bo shouts and waves at him from across the street.

After lunch we see the guy and his dog in front of the courthouse and we stop to visit.  Loraine recognizes a woman with him and her dog.

These people: Bo, Ronda, Loraine, Jean, all of them, do so much good, so much work for both people and animals that it simply defies logic when people on social media decry all the fuss about "just a dog."

They have no idea the depths to which these people reach to help others.

When the verdict came in, this guy had someone watch his dog for him so he could come in and hear his friend Bo's verdict.


Doris on verdict day: She drove from MS to support Braveheart
Ms. Doris came from Mississippi to see this trial.  She is involved in animal rescue and has been for her entire life.  She's a fireball!

Ms. Doris was staying in a hotel in downtown Shreveport which caught on fire thus ruining her clothes for then they smelled like smoke.  She woke up to what she thought was an alarm, then looked out her peephole, didn't see anyone about, opened her door, and saw smoke.

Me:  "Oh my gosh!  Did they evacuate y'all?!"

Doris:  "Well!  I evacuated myself!"

She gathered a terrified young boy and his mother and out they went.

After sitting in the courtroom all day then she went back to the hotel to wash her smoky wardrobe and try to recover her items from her now sealed hotel room.


Closing arguments.

The ADA again strides up to her podium.  Elegant.  Cool.  Her confidence level has improved and her body language indicates a certain degree of confidence.  She has been chatting and smiling more with her co-counsel and seems more relaxed.

Her closing argument was made for television.

As she went over the possible verdicts the jury could consider, she reminded them that the defendant was charged with aggravated cruelty to an animal.  A lesser charge they could find is "simple cruelty to an animal."

She held up the now famous picture of Braveheart curled up, waiting for death, in the storage locker.

"There is nothing simple about this," she said.

She listed like bullets a lengthy list of things the defendant "omitted" to do.

"OMISSION:  He omitted requesting veterinary assistance" from the vet tech from whom he rented the locker and who had previously offered to give him medicine for the puppy's obvious worms.

"OMISSION," she said again:  he didn't tell anyone there was a dog in the locker when they told him not to come back on the property.

"OMISSION!"  she said:  he didn't give the dog proper food or water - he was clinically emaciated and dehydrated.

She went through at least ten of these...


It was a made for TV delivery.


The law for aggravated animal cruelty in the State of Louisiana:
Any person who intentionally or with criminal negligence mistreats any living animal whether belonging to himself or another by any act or omission which causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable physical pain, suffering, or death to the animal shall also be guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals.


"Redirected aggression"  



"There is NOTHING simple about this."


"OMISSION":  he FAILED this dog in every sense of the word.


The public defender's closing arguments were basically that the defendant found the dog three days before he was found, he only checked the box that said he was the legal and rightful owner, or had custodial discretion, on the animal control release because he wanted to take care of the dog and he knew it would have a better life!  

He was giving it Gatorade!  To replace electrolytes!

He was giving it "proper" amounts of food!

She referred back to the emergency vet who said it was "very surprising" that Braveheart showed an interest in food at all in those early hours.

It was all because the defendant "gave her a head start!" with his care!

This poor fellow, this victim of "redirected aggression," saved the dog's life!

He's a hero!


He did not tell the owner of that storage facility that he had a dog locked and chained inside.


I'll be honest.  I was incredulous at the defense closing arguments.  



The jury is charged, the judge reads pages of jury directions, and trial is in recess until verdict.  The Braveheart crew is exhilarated.  The prosecuting attorney are beaming.  Not celebrating, but confident.  

The back row is filled with deputies and the row before them filled with media.  As we leave the courtroom the media linger in the hallway afraid to venture too far.

Bo Spataro, always, always pleasant and polite, offers to call them when he gets word about a verdict so they, too, can go eat lunch.

We all file out the side exit, through the garage, and the smokers fire up.

We will have lunch at a place right next door to the courthouse on Texas Street, on the corner.  It's close.  

There are about eight of us; we sit down in the nearly empty restaurant, order drinks, peruse the menu, place orders.  

We see our courtroom bailiffs picking up lunches for the jurors.  Our lunch is delayed until the juror orders go out, which is fine.  We want them happy!

As soon as our food starts coming out Bo's phone rings.  

"They have a verdict," he says.  

The waiter, about to place a platter of red beans & rice in front of me pauses:

"You want us to just hold this for you?"  he asks as Bo says "We need checks."

All bundles of butterflies and wondering what this quick verdict means, we dash out.  They promise to hold our food.

Now that's service!

We rush to the side entrance of the courthouse and get through the metal detectors and scanners as quickly as possible.  

Nobody has eaten.  Nobody could eat, now.  

Walking briskly down the hall to the courtroom, Loraine stops:  takes deep breaths, and her green eyes look a little alarmed.  

"Are you okay?"  someone asks.

Her eyes fill with tears.  

"Yes."  she says.  

It's fine - everyone has been saying.  Braveheart is already a winner.

But there must be justice, right?

Deputies everywhere.

The tension is incredible.

Doris:  "I've never seen such a police presence in my life!"  This from a woman who attended the Casey Anthony trial.

"What do they think we're going to do?!" she said.


The attorneys and defendant are all in place.  People are rushing in.  Bo kept his promise and let the media know the verdict was in.  They are here.

Finally, the judge enters.  

The jury files in.  I think about Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird, who said that a jury never looks at the defendant if they've convicted him.  

Jean is on one side of Ronda and Bo on the other.  All three have hands clenched in Ronda's lap.

The foreman passes in the verdict.  

The judge looks, scowls, motions them back to the jury room.  

Some technicality.

We stand and sit every time they enter.

The come back in within a few moments, we stand again.

The bailiff reads the verdict.

Guilty of Simple Cruelty to Animals.

Simple Cruelty.


"There is nothing simple about this!"


"Redirected aggression!"


Whispers ripple throughout - 


"It's simple, isn't it?  Is that what they said?"

"Simple cruelty!"


The defendant is handcuffed; it's still a conviction although a misdemeanor and not a felony, now.  Handcuffed and taken away.


There is relief that it's not a "Not Guilty" verdict but much frustration that it's not "Aggravated."  The difference in the language is so close - whether the abuse was intentional or not.  

I suppose the jurors believed the defense's theory that the defendant was trying to help the dog by bringing him into the "shade, out of the elements."  


Media everywhere.  They all want to hear from Bo and Ronda.  

Both need a moment to gather thoughts.  

The media complies.

In a few minutes, Bo and Ronda give a statement to the media in front of the courthouse; the frustration is obvious.

"What do you want to say to Mr. Lee?"

"I don't think we have anything to say to Mr. Lee at this point."

How do you feel about the verdict?

It's not what we wanted, but we will live with it.


It's not what we wanted, but we will live with it.


"Redirected aggression."


Obviously, Braveheart is a winner.  And the Spataros are winners because at the end of the day they get to go home to a beautiful Braveheart.  They are winners because they are good, kind, caring people who are doing good in their community and who have a loving network of friends and family.  
Whatever the verdict was today, they are all winners and there is nothing but positive, good things ahead of them. 

And many more dogs to save!

Go, Brave, go!

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