Fred Grimm

Ghastly, damning evidence of animal cruelty tossed out of Miami-Dade court

Richard Couto, founder of the Animal Recovery Mission, during a 2013 multi-agency raid on an illegal butchering operation near Homestead.
Richard Couto, founder of the Animal Recovery Mission, during a 2013 multi-agency raid on an illegal butchering operation near Homestead. Miami Herald File

The judge didn’t consider questions about the defendant’s sense of decency. Otherwise, Yonisley Garcia’s day in court might not have gone so well.

Rather, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy ruled that photographs and videos supporting eight counts of felony animal abuse against Garcia were inadmissible. Jurors won’t see gruesome images secretly recorded at the ramshackle slaughterhouse in northwest Miami-Dade County where Garcia was arrested back in 2014.

Good thing for the 33-year-old Garcia. Jurors would be inclined to come out of the jury box and pummel a defendant after watching live, suffering farm animals beaten, stabbed, shot, sledge-hammered, dragged by the mouth. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office described one sequence: “On video surveillance, a pig can be seen being dragged, hook-mouthed through the jaw, at distances of approximately 150 feet, all while the animal remained alive.”

The dismissed evidence amounted to the visual equivalent to a punch in the gut. If Judge Murphy had allowed this inflammatory stuff into evidence, any arguments in an upcoming jury trial from Garcia’s lawyer about Latin cultural norms or animal rights hypocrisy would have been ignored.

But defense attorney George Pallas convinced Judge Murphy that the undercover investigators from the Miami-based Animal Recovery Mission (ARM), a group of zealous — maybe overzealous — animal rights activists, had violated Garcia’s right to privacy when they surreptitiously filmed those awful scenes.

The Herald’s David Ovalle reported Pallas convinced the judge that Florida law requires private citizens to obtain permission before recording someone in a non-public setting. In his motion to suppress the evidence, Pallas claimed ARM investigators “lied about their true identities and purpose for being on private property and additionally failed to advise the defendant and co-defendants that they were recording both audio and video with hidden cameras and/or other audio equipment.”

Pallas added, “The Defendant had no knowledge he was being recorded and never consented to any recording.”

Judge Murphy agreed. And his ruling undermined the tenuous legal basis for South Florida’s most sensational animal cruelty cases in recent years. ARM investigators, led by founder Richard Couto, have gone undercover to collect damning, often horrifying evidence against rogue slaughter operations. Pallas called them vigilantes. Whatever they are, they’re not members of law enforcement.

But a similar legal tactic failed in Palm Beach County after another ARM investigation sparked police raids on three farms near Loxahatchee last year. Lawyers for the eight men arrested on animal cruelty charges raised the same privacy argument, but the Palm Beach courts decided the slaughterhouses, however shoddy, were operating as public businesses and came under a legal exception to Florida’s consent-to-record requirement.

The Sun-Sentinel reported that after jurors saw ARM’s brutal undercover videos in the Loxahatchee case in April, they convicted Jorge Luis Garcia, 48, on four counts of animal cruelty. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail. Another defendant accepted a plea deal.

But Jorge Luis Garcia’s defense attorney, Andrew Stine, told the Sun-Sentinel that he intended to pursue the privacy question in the appellate courts. “A case like this hasn't been decided in Florida,” he said.

Pallas, Yonisley Gracia’s lawyer, raised other troubling issues about the prosecution’s reliance on ARM to pursue the undercover investigation. His motion the suppress the evidence challenged Richard Couto’s credibility and accused ARM of embellishing evidence. (Couto and ARM did not answer my email asking for comment.) But the suppressed video hardly looked embellished. It just looked terrible. (Another defendant in the case, Raul “Freaky” Fernandez, 53, has pleaded guilty and is serving an 18-month prison term.)

Pallas has a point, however. ARM has been pursuing gut-wrenching animal cruelty cases in South Florida for a half-dozen years — cases that ought to have been pursued by city, county or state officers.

It was ARM’s hell-raising that finally forced reluctant county officials to descend on the C-9 Basin, a woodsy conservation area in northwest Miami-Dade County, back in 2010. For years, county authorities had ignored illegal slaughterhouses and cockfighting rings operating in the basin. Stolen horses were trucked into the basin and slaughtered. It was a horror show of animal abuse. Without Couto and ARM, it still would be.

If ARM’s vigilante tactics have strayed beyond the strict legal parameters, it’s because negligent law enforcement agencies shrugged off the illegal, hideously cruel operations flourishing out there on society’s fringe.

Judge Murphy’s ruling suggests that if cops were doing their job, animal activists wouldn't feel compelled the fill the vacuum.