A jury has found two veteran Sullivan County animal control officers not guilty of animal cruelty charges for waiting six days to euthanize an injured cat.

About 55 minutes of deliberations preceded the jury’s announcement that they had found Douglas Aaron West, 31, 251 Heyford Drive, Bristol, Tenn., and Stephen F. Ward, 52, 485 Hood Road, Kingsport, not guilty of two counts each of cruelty to animals in Sullivan County Criminal Court.

Stephen Ward, left, and Douglas Aaron West are being tried on animal cruelty charges in Sullivan County Criminal Court. Kacie Breeding photo.

The case revolved around the question of whether the pair’s keeping of an injured cat in a quarantine cage from April 17, 2011, until Ward euthanized it on April 22, 2011, constituted animal cruelty offenses.

At the time of the alleged offenses, the shelter was still under the purview of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. West, with about a decade of experience, had been promoted to shelter director, while Ward, an animal control officer for 13 years, was authorized to perform euthanizations.

In closing arguments Wednesday morning, Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Julie Canter argued the state had proven that the cat endured pain and suffering during its time in the quarantine cage. She argued West and Ward were also guilty because they had failed to relieve the cat’s suffering by either seeking immediate veterinary care or by euthanizing it.

Testimony Canter highlighted in support of her position included that of Dr. Katherine Zimmerman, a veterinarian of 16 years who said the cat appeared to have suffered one or more pelvic and tail fractures and would have been in pain and in need of immediate veterinary care. Zimmerman’s testimony was based on her review of a statement from James Sexton, a Kingsport resident whose call prompted West to respond and collect the cat, and a study of the animal’s posture in a photo snapped by concerned retired nurse and shelter volunteer Karen Young.

West’s attorney, Lynn Dougherty, and Ward’s attorney, Rick Spivey, each argued that the state had failed to prove the cat had endured pain and suffering. They argued that, based on their clients’ hands-on examinations of the cat, it was injured but not in pain. West and Ward each had previously testified that the cat did not cry out or try to bite them when they had checked it over, leading them to believe it felt no pain from its injuries.

When the jury foreman read the first not guilty verdict — which was for West — the outcome prompted an emotional response from family and friends, including a shout of, “Yes!” The judge’s stern warning that any further such disruption would be met with an arrest for contempt subdued the group somewhat, although muffled sobs were still audible. West and Ward were both teary-eyed as well by the time all four not guilty verdicts had been announced.

Afterward, Dougherty said, “I’m glad it’s over for Mr. West. I hope he can get back to work soon. He really has dedicated his entire adult life to helping the citizens of Sullvian County and taking care of our animals, and I hope we can get him back to work.”

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