Canine bite expert says ‘Phineas the dog’ not guilty of biting child

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SALEM, MO (KTVI) - 'Phineas the Dog' is still missing from a Salem, MO veterinarian`s office but that did not stop supporters from taking his case to court again Thursday.

The yellow Labrador retriever has been at the center of a controversy in the small town southeast of Rolla for 16 months.  Salem`s Mayor Gary Brown decided to have the dog put down after a child said the animal bit her on the abdomen in June of 2012.

A Dent County judge ruled the city had the authority to do that.  But dog lovers from around the nation have mounted a social media campaign to save Phineas.
Thursday they asked Judge Scott Bernstein to set aside his original ruling saying the city had misrepresented facts in the trial and the judgment was no longer equitable or fair.

A canine aggression and dog bite expert testified that the photographed injury on the child`s stomach was not caused by the Labrador.  Jim Crosby of Jacksonville, FL said the injury is 'the wrong shape and the wrong size for that dog' and there is no evidence of puncture wounds from the dog`s long canine teeth.  Crosby brought a dog`s skull and jaw bone to the stand to demonstrate why the long canine teeth would cause an injury before the dog`s front teeth even break skin.

Salem City Attorney William Seay objected to the expert testimony telling the judge, 'I`ve gone along with this `dog and pony show` long enough' and the size of the dog bite had nothing to do with the legal pleadings before the court.

Salem Mayor Gary Brown served as the hearing officer in 2012 to determine whether the dog should be euthanized.  He testified he relied on a report filed by the investigators (a police officer and the town`s animal control officer) and pictures of the injury to help him make his ruling that Phineas should be euthanized.

Attorney Jeff Lowe pressured Mayor Brown over whether the report the dog had bitten children three times was hearsay or evidence.  'I followed the law based on the information I had,' Brown said although he did not call the children to testify nor did he interview them.

Lowe suggested the Mayor had already decided to put the dog down before he held the hearing.  No minutes or record of the hearing was conducted.

Brown said a letter signed by Wayna Woolman, the mother of the injured child, was read at the hearing.  He believed she had signed the letter under duress.

When Wayna Woolman was called to the stand she said she regretted signing the letter which was written by Joe Simon, an attorney working with Amber and Patrick Sanders who own Phineas.  'He told me he would take pictures of the bite off the web site and take the `heat` off my family, but he did not make the threats go away.'

Choking back tears, Ms Woolman said 'My life and my family`s life have been turned upside down because of threats from Phineas supporters.'  One person has been charged with third degree assault and harassment over a threat made against Ms Woolman.

The lab`s owner, Patrick Sanders said his family has not received any threats.  However they no longer look at Facebook pages.  'It`s just too much stress to have to balance everything out,' Sanders said.  But he went on to say, 'We have tons of friends on our side that have been threatened.'

Mayor Brown indicated he too had received threats over the decision to put down the dog.

A veterinarian in Salem, Dr. J.J. Tune testified Phineas was a friendly dog and not vicious during the time he cared for the animal.  He too agreed the injury to the child was not caused by a dog with a jaw the size of Phineas.

In summary, Lowe said the Sanders were deprived of their property (Phineas) without due process and that violates Salem City ordinances as well as the state and the U.S. Constitutions.  He argued the trial ruling is no longer a fair decision and the Court has the power to send the dog home.

Salem attorney Seay argued the plaintiff`s original lawyer never brought up the claim there was a procedural error with the Mayor`s hearing on Phineas.   'You can`t try to re-open a case just because you think of different arguments.'

Judge Bernstein told the lawyers to send him legal briefs on their arguments in a week.  He asked them to answer the question, 'Do I have jurisdiction to re-open the case.'

The judge also added what he called his own 'editorial.'   'There are no bad people in this case and the hard feelings are misplaced,' he said.  Bernstein went on to say, 'From my perspective the publicity has been unfair to the mayor and everyone needs to be a little less harsh.'

Now that the animal is missing, it is not clear how far the legal efforts will go.  Sanders, however, wants to take the case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court if necessary.
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