- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

SPOTSYLVANIA, Va. — A dog owner was convicted yesterday of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison for allowing her pit bulls to run loose and fatally maul an 82-year-old woman.

The conviction against Deanna Large, 37, of Partlow, marks the first time in Virginia that a dog owner has been convicted of manslaughter for the actions of a pet.

Circuit Judge Ann Hunter Simpson has the option to reduce the sentence when Large is formally sentenced on Feb. 24, but she cannot increase it.

Spotsylvania County Commonwealth’s Attorney William F. Neely had asked for the maximum sentence of 10 years, but said he was pleased with the jury’s decision.

He said he rarely asks a jury to impose a maximum term, but felt compelled to do so because of the horrific nature of the crime and to establish a precedent in such cases.

Mr. Neely said victim Dorothy Sullivan’s injuries were “horrible.”

“She was literally torn to pieces,” he said. “They were the worst injuries I’ve seen in 23 years as a prosecutor.”

During the two-day trial, jurors saw autopsy photos that showed pieces of Mrs. Sullivan’s scalp torn away, chunks of flesh torn from her arm and thigh, and bites on her ankle down to the bone.

Large lowered her head slightly when the verdict was read. She wiped away tears later in the day as the trial entered its sentencing phase.

Her attorney, Eugene Frost, had argued for a lighter sentence. He said after the sentence that he plans to appeal.

Mrs. Sullivan was attacked March 8 by three pit bulls while she took her Shih Tzu, Buttons, for a walk outside her home. The dog also was killed.

Large’s attorney argued during the trial that the dogs that killed Mrs. Sullivan did not belong to Large. Even if they were her dogs, he argued, Large had no reason to believe they were dangerous.

But numerous neighbors testified during the trial that Large’s dogs had terrorized the rural neighborhood, growling at children and killing a German shepherd just a week before the attack on Mrs. Sullivan.

The jury deliberated for nearly six hours before convicting Large and for about an hour to decide her sentence.

Jurors were told during the trial’s sentencing phase about Large’s criminal record, including felony convictions for hit-and-run and aggravated sexual battery against a 13-year-old boy.

Mr. Neely said Large’s criminal record demonstrated she is a person “who flat didn’t care” about other people.

Prosecutors were required to prove that Large owned the dogs that mauled Mrs. Sullivan and that Large’s ownership was so negligent that it rose to the level of “callous disregard” for human life.

Mr. Neely said involuntary manslaughter convictions have been obtained in more than a dozen states under similar circumstances. In a well-publicized case in California in 2001, two persons who had been taking care of a prison inmate’s Presa Canarios, a type of mastiff, were sentenced to two years in prison after the dogs fatally mauled a woman.

Mrs. Sullivan’s death has prompted Virginia legislators to propose several laws to ensure that dangerous dogs are controlled and to punish owners who allow them to roam.

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