Deal spares dog that mauled gardener

April 3, 2008 4:41:29 PM PDT
A plea bargain approved Thursday will spare the life of a dog sentenced to die after mauling a gardener at a Princeton Township home. Under the deal, dog owner Elizabeth James pleaded guilty to a municipal ordinance barring residents from allowing their dog to threaten or bite others and agreed to pay $250 in fines.

More serious charges against her related to the attack by Congo, a German shepherd, were dropped by the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office as part of the deal.

The James family had already reached a settlement with the victim, Giovanni Rivera, that paid him $250,000.

Lawyers for the family and Rivera said they are satisfied with the outcome. A call to a listing for the James family rang unanswered.

A message left after business hours seeking comment from the prosecutor's office was not immediately returned.

The plea agreement, approved by state Superior Court Judge Mitchel E. Ostrer in Trenton, ends a case that provoked outcry from animal lovers and prompted state legislators to draft a law that would have given Congo a reprieve.

The office of Gov. Jon S. Corzine said it got over 10,000 pleas on the dog's behalf, through telephone calls, e-mails, letters and faxes. Corzine said he would leave the matter to the courts.

The case also brought debate about immigration issues because Rivera came from Honduras.

Prosecutors contended the attack in June was unprovoked and a Princeton Township Municipal Court judge ruled the dog had to be put down. The order was stayed so the family could appeal, and Congo was returned home under security precautions.

However, Elizabeth James and her husband, Guy James, maintain the dog was provoked before attacking, said their lawyer, Robert E. Lytle.

They agreed to the deal because, "It strikes a reasonable balance between the interests of all that were involved," he said.

Under its terms, the family - which has four other German shepherds - must continue to maintain signs that warn of a "potentially dangerous dog" and maintain the fencing around their property.

The dogs must be muzzled and leashed when taken outside of the enclosure, and the family must maintain insurance coverage and notify the township animal control officer and police if the dogs escape, according to court papers.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Guy James contended that Rivera and other gardeners arrived early while the dogs were eating, and disregarded his calls for them to stay in their vehicle. He said Congo attacked Rivera after the panicked gardener grabbed his wife from behind and pulled her down, causing her to scream.

Rivera's lawyer and the municipal prosecutor have disputed that account: They said the gardener never pulled her down and that James' wife couldn't control the animal.

The gardener was in the hospital for five days after suffering "hundreds and hundreds of cuts," a prosecutor has said.

Rivera's lawyer, Kevin S. Riechelson, said he had not yet been able to reach his client to discuss the plea bargain, but said, "I think it's a reasonable settlement."

Rivera is still in New Jersey, Riechelson said, but the lawyer did not know if he had resumed working.