Hung jury in cat murder trial

September 26, 2008 2:29:17 PM PDT
He was a strapping ex-athlete in steel-toed boots. His nemesis was an 8-pound cat. A mismatch for sure, but after a week, a jury couldn't decide whether ex-baseball player and actor Joe Petcka killed his girlfriend's declawed pet in a fit of sadism, or self defense. A judge declared a hung jury in the rare felony animal cruelty trial Friday.

Emerging after five days of deliberations, the jurors - looking haggard - nodded when the state Supreme Court justice asked if it would be pointless to continue.

Juror Doug Collman told reporters that the vote had been 11 to 1 in favor of conviction on aggravated animal cruelty, a felony carrying a prison term of up to two years.

Petcka looked straight ahead when the conclusion was announced. His lawyer said they were grateful for the jury's hard work.

Earlier Friday, the jurors had asked to rehear a legal description - a requirement that the defendant intended to cause extreme physical pain to an animal, or acted in an especially depraved or sadistic manner. Collman said the 32-year-old holdout for acquittal "was not swayed by the arguments of intent."

Collman, 29, an advertising account manager who has two cats, said shouting erupted in the jury room on Monday and Tuesday.

"Then we calmed down for a while and then there was shouting today."

The case was catnip for the city's tabloids, whose headlines jeered "Cat and louse!" and "What a pussy!" But it ignited skepticism as well as sympathy, with some observers questioning whether the feline's demise warranted the effort and expense of a trial.

Petcka - a former New York Mets minor leaguer and bit player in "Sex and the City" and other television shows - testified that he kicked the cat and flung him into the air after being lunged at and bitten on March 27, 2007. He acknowledged it was "a bad, violent reaction" but said he never meant to hurt the tabby, named Norman.

Assistant District Attorney Leila Kermani argued that the 6-foot-plus, 205-pound Petcka savaged the cat out of jealousy. The "washed-up" athlete and "D-minus list" actor had complained that his then-girlfriend, Sports Illustrated reporter Lisa Altobelli, cared more for the cat than for him, Kermani said.

Animal lovers flooded the court with letters excoriating Petcka for his attempts to blame the cat and calling for a stiff punishment. But others - some of them in the jury pool - said the incident didn't deserve the court's time.

"This kind of case is a waste of taxpayers' money," Kelly Scott, a prospective juror who wasn't picked, told the Daily News.

Animal cruelty was at most a misdemeanor in New York State until 1999, when lawmakers created the charge of aggravated animal cruelty, a felony. It requires proving that someone unjustifiably attacked a pet and either aimed to cause extreme pain or mounted an "especially depraved or sadistic" assault.

The felony charge has been deployed in about a quarter to a third of the 60 arrests the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has made so far this year in New York City, assistant director Joseph Pentangelo said.

Some defendants plead the charges down to misdemeanors, including Oleg Zhdanov, who admitted beating his 5-month-old puppy to death in 2005. The Manhattan man was initially sentenced to three years' probation, but a judge last October imposed a nine-month jail term, saying Zhdanov had violated his probation terms by living with a roommate who had two cats. He had been ordered not to keep any pets except fish.

Petcka's lawyer had complained that his client wasn't offered a plea bargain.

Petcka said the orange-and-white, long-haired cat had it in for him from the start of his six-week relationship with Altobelli. He testified that he fought back after the feline charged at him, bit his hand and knocked him onto a coffee table.

Altobelli said Petcka had been angry and drinking heavily after they went out the previous evening.

Altobelli testified that she went to sleep to avoid Petcka, but he woke her to complain that Norman had bitten him. They argued, she left the apartment, and when she returned, Petcka was gone and the cat was dead, she said.

After pitching in the Mets' minor league system in 1992, Petcka appeared in a paper-towel commercial and had small roles in several TV shows. He more recently worked as a bartender and waiter.


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