A judgment behind closed doors

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, October 20, 2011

In the super-secret world of Virginia’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court system, it’s often hard to gain much insight into the machinations of justice. Except in extreme circumstances, youthful offenders enter the system anonymously and without publicity, and judicial decisions and pronouncements often are sealed to the eyes of the public.

The reasons for all the secrecy are plain enough: Lawmakers believe that accused parties who have not reached adulthood deserve an extra measure of protection from the often harsh and sometimes unfair glare of the public spotlight. Especially in the case of youthful defendants who are ultimately ruled not guilty of their charges, uninformed public opinion could do harm that might unfairly follow them beyond their childhood years.

But the secrecy of juvenile court makes it especially hard to understand the reasons behind a judge’s decisions there, and the recent case of a young boy charged with abusing a kitten brings the matter into sharp focus.

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Folks around Hampton Roads are familiar by now with “Little Heart,” a stray kitten that some children on Brook Avenue were playing with in May when an older boy came up, grabbed the kitten, threw it against a wall and then beat it with a stick. Little Heart, so named because of the blue heart drawn on its leg cast, succumbed to its injuries, which included a broken leg and skull, almost a week later.

The boy was initially charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty, but that charge was upgraded to a felony after a necropsy determined the kitten’s injuries caused its death. But Judge Robert S. Brewbaker Jr. ruled that the boy, whose name hasn’t been released under the J&DR system’s rules of secrecy, could not be convicted of the felony, because the cat that he tortured did not belong to anyone.

Paraphrasing the code, Virginia law states that anyone who tortures a dog or cat that is a companion animal and whose torture is found to be the direct cause of the animal’s death is guilty of a Class 6 felony.

Brewbaker’s ruling hinges on the definition of “companion animal,” a term the judge seems to have interpreted as meaning “an animal that is a person’s companion.” Viewed in that light, the judgment would make sense. However, Virginia law gives the term a different, broader definition that includes “domestic or feral cat,” and under that definition, the boy in question would have been guilty of a felony, as it would not have mattered that the cat was a stray.

Both the judge in this case and the judicial system he represents are worthy of the community’s utmost respect. But the community has a right to expect strict punishment for such a heinous offense. Sadly, Virginia’s secretive juvenile justice system, which excludes the public from juvenile hearings, gives judges little opportunity to make their rulings understood.

In light of such shortcomings, the General Assembly should readdress the secrecy of juvenile court. Much could be gained by a public understanding of what happens behind those closed doors.