No jail for teen accused of torching a caged cat. Judge orders community service instead

The South Miami-Dade teenager accused of setting a caged cat on fire and feeding it to his dogs won’t be going to jail.

A Miami-Dade judge on Friday sentenced Roberto Hernandez, 19, to five years of probation for the disturbing animal killing that was caught on video surveillance. Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, after closely reviewing video of the killing, said she believed Hernandez, who claimed the animal was actually a rabid raccoon that had been reported attacking area farm animals.

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“I don’t think a raccoon should be treated in that manner,” Sayfie said, adding: “I don’t think jail time is appropriate.”

Sayfie rejected Miami-Dade prosecutors’ request that Hernandez spend 364 days in jail. Instead, she sentenced him to five years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service. She cited Hernandez’s age and the fact that prosecutors rarely seek such jail sentences for third-degree felony cases for first-time offenders.

“I find it curious that in this case the state is seeking jail time when apparently human victims don’t warrant the same approach,” Sayfie said.

Prosecutors said Hernandez, then 17, put a stray cat in a small cage, doused it with some sort of flammable liquid and flicked matches on the animal until it burst into flames. Video surveillance showed the animal writhing in agony, while Hernandez grabbed a drink and watched.

When the animal collapsed, he fed it to his pit bulls, prosecutors said. A tenant who lived on the property witnessed the killing, and told police she was certain it was a cat.

Florida’s animal-cruelty law forbids the unnecessary suffering of any “living creature.”

The state sought jail time because of “the atrocious nature of the crime,” Assistant State Attorney Nicole Garcia told the judge during a hearing on Friday. “This was a brutal case.”

But Hernandez’s defense lawyer asked the judge for probation, saying the teen came from a troubled family and had to drop out of school to work the family’s farm. Hernandez had no criminal history.

“Roberto is a young man on the precipice of adult life, who has never been arrested and has shown himself to be a loving child, a responsible caretaker and law-abiding citizen, ” Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Kevin Cobb wrote in a proposal sent to the court.

Judge Sayfie agreed. Hernandez pleaded guilty to one count of felony animal abuse.

She granted Hernandez a “withhold of adjudication,” which means Hernandez won’t be considered a felon. He’ll also have to undergo a psychological evaluation in one year, and must report to a judge every month.

Cobb declined to comment after the hearing.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said “we are disappointed” by the statement.

“It is our sincere hope that this young man who brutally caused the torture and death of a defenseless caged cat, will adhere to any suggested psychological or psychiatric treatment imposed by a duly qualified physician,” she said in a statement. “As I have said many times, research shows that individuals who commit acts of cruelty against helpless and trusting animals don’t just stop there. Many of these individuals move on to commit violent acts against their fellow humans.”

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.