DECATUR — Shamar Q. Dawson, 23, appeared in Macon County Court on a Class A misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty on Friday, several weeks after police said he allowed a pet dog to freeze to death and then tried to cover up the incident.
Macon County Animal Control officers were called Jan. 9 to a Decatur backyard where they said they found a female pit bull named Mary Jane that had frozen to death.
In a sworn affidavit, officers said they determined the dog had died two weeks earlier, and they established the dog did not belong to the family in whose yard it was found.
That family called police after finding the dog, which was dead inside a dog house, sheriff's deputies said.
“It was determined that the suspect had dragged the doghouse containing the deceased dog through the snow from the backyard (of his home) on South Jackson Street and had placed it in the complainant’s backyard on South Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in an attempt to dispose of it,” sheriff's Sgt. M.T. Reynolds said in the affidavit.
Animal cruelty is a Class A misdemeanor in Illinois, but a second or subsequent conviction is a Class 4 felony. The charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Nine local animal welfare activists were present in the courtroom for Dawson's plea. They said they are beginning to lobby state lawmakers to change a first conviction of animal cruelty to a Class 4 felony.
"This is a dead dog. This is wrong," said Susan Stukins Pryde, holding up a picture of a deceased dog.
The group, Illinois Pet Law Changes, asked the candidates for sheriff at a recent public debate about their views on animal cruelty laws.
Republican Lt. Sheriff Jim Root said he didn't think jail space should be taken up with people accused of animal cruelty because that space was needed for other criminals.
“It’s all about pet responsibility,” he said.
Root said someone found guilty of abusing an animal should be registered and not allowed to adopt pets.
Democrat Lt. Jonathan Butts said he and his wife have had seven rescued dogs.
“I'm not ashamed to say it: They're family,” Butts said. “Responsible owners want pets for the right reasons, not for a yard ornament. We need to enhance the penalties. Who's going to speak up if we don't?”
Lt. Antonio Brown, who is facing Butts in a March 20 primary election, joked that a big guy like him is expected to have tough-looking dogs, but he has a teacup Yorkie named Mojo and a Shih Tzu mix named Frankie, both of whom he also considers family.
“Animals are so vulnerable,” he said. “The penalties should be stiffer. If you cannot care for an animal, you shouldn't have it. I saw the video posted on Facebook (about the frozen dog), and I couldn't even look at it.”
Reynolds said the Macon County Animal Control and Care Center encourages reporting all neglect and animal abuse. Call (217) 425-4508 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays or (217) 424-1311 after hours and weekends.
UPDATED: This story has been updated to clarify Root's comments at the forum, when Macon County Animal Control was called and the nature of Dawson's appearance in court.