SALEM — Courtney Casey thought her emotional support dog, Nigil, would be better off inside her Jeep, parked in a dim garage, than walking around downtown Salem for five hours on a fall afternoon, her attorney suggested on Wednesday.
There's no evidence that Casey had any idea, argued her lawyer, Thomas Hoopes, that the little French bulldog was at risk of choking to death on its own vomit, something that can happen to flat-faced, or brachycephalic, breeds when they get over-excited after a meal.
But Essex County prosecutor Lynsey Legier argued that whether or not Casey, 29, from Long Island, New York, knew of the risk to her dog, it does not matter.
"Did he suffer?" Legier had asked her expert witness, veterinarian Martha Smith-Blackmore. The answer: yes.
Legier argued to Salem District Court Judge Emily Karstetter that animal cruelty, the charge Casey is now standing trial on, is what is known as a "general intent" crime, meaning that a person need not have any malicious intent, only that his or her actions led to an animal's suffering.
It's now up to Karstetter, who will hear closing arguments in a jury-waived trial on Thursday afternoon, to decide whether Casey is guilty of animal cruelty.
Casey, who was living in Brighton at the time, and her boyfriend, Brendan Bulfin, 39, of Setauket, New York, were both charged after police were called to the MBTA parking garage off Bridge Street early on the evening of Oct. 15, 2017.
The couple had decided to spend the day sightseeing, two weeks before Halloween in the Witch City.
Nigil, who was 3, stayed in the Jeep. The windows were cracked a bit.
Witnesses had seen the little dog jumping around in the vehicle earlier in the afternoon. But when they returned to their car, they noticed that the dog was no longer visible.
Nigil, as it turns out, had suffered from respiratory failure from a mechanical obstruction and pulmonary edema, Smith-Blackmore testified.
Brachycephalic dogs, when they get excited or distressed, can swallow air, and sometimes vomit, the veterinarian said.
Police initially speculated that the case was heat and a lack of water. But Smith-Blackmore had not included those as causes in her necropsy report — because, she later explained, she had no information on the dog's temperature when found, and that when the dog's body was frozen until it could be examined, it hindered her ability to determine whether it was dehydrated, she testified.
During her testimony, however, she said she could not rule out those as contributing factors.
And that's what Hoopes honed in on during his cross-examination of the vet, asking why she had not addressed them in her report if she believed they were factors in Nigil's death.
"I don't read anything about heat in here," said Hoopes. "Am I missing anything?"
"No," Smith-Blackmore replied.
"And I don't read anything about water in here, am I missing it?" he asked.
Again, she said he had not.
Hoopes called several witnesses to testify about the temperature that day — an average of 72 degrees based on readings at Beverly Municipal and Logan International airports, said meteorologist Fred Campagna — and the estimated temperature inside the car.
Two engineers who specialize in thermal science testified that when they conducted experiments under similar conditions, parking a Jeep inside the MBTA garage on four different dates, just two spaces from where Casey's Jeep was parked, an area with no sunlight, the temperature inside the test vehicle remained the same or dropped slightly lower than the outside temperature.
By comparison, the interior of a car parked in the sun shot up to 120 degrees within an hour, the engineers testified.
Hoopes suggested that the law does not prevent someone from leaving a dog in a vehicle, only making it illegal to do so when the dog would be exposed to extreme heat or cold.
But Legier told Karstetter that animal cruelty is a general intent crime. "It doesn't matter what a person believes," she argued.
Bulfin's case was dismissed earlier this year following a period of pre-trial probation.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.