- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A man has been convicted of fatally stabbing a police dog in an incident that prompted state lawmakers to stiffen the penalty for harming police animals.

John Lewis Rush was convicted Monday of torturing or harming a police animal and other charges, but an Allegheny County judge did not immediately set a sentencing date.

Rush stabbed the K-9 unit dog, Rocco, and assaulted four police officers trying to arrest him in January on warrants for violating probation and failing to register as a sex offender, prosecutors said. The Stowe Township resident also was convicted of 10 of 11 other charges he faced.

Rush, who’s 22, faces up to seven years in prison on the dog charge alone. The charge now carries up to 10 years in prison since the state Legislature in July passed Rocco’s Law, which upped the crime of harming or torturing a police animal from a third-degree felony to second-degree felony.

Rush was convicted of four counts of aggravated assault on the dog’s handler, who was stabbed in a shoulder, and three other officers. He faces up to 20 years in prison for each of those assault convictions.

Defense attorney Aaron Sontz took issue with the police version of the event, calling it “impossible.” Rush testified he stabbed the dog in self-defense, fearing it was about to attack him, and said he didn’t intend to kill it.

Prosecutors contended Rush fought off a sheriff’s deputy who tried to arrest him on the warrants on Jan. 28, only to encounter Rocco, his handler and other officers about 40 minutes later while he was hiding in a home’s basement.

The dog’s handler, Officer Phil Lerza, warned Rush to shout an answer to police or face the dog, an 8-year-old German shepherd, a criminal complaint said. Instead, Rush “lunged out from near a pillar and attacked K-9 Rocco” with a 6-inch folding knife, it said.

The dog, known as Officer Rocco, was stabbed in the back, damaging muscles and a spinal bone and lacerating a kidney. It survived surgery but developed pneumonia and died two days later.

Rush was acquitted by the jury of a charge he burglarized a building.

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