Judge rules lawsuits against PETA may proceed

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Judge allows two lawsuits against PETA to proceed

By AMY JETER, The Virginian-Pilot

May 9, 2002

PORTSMOUTH -- A judge has allowed two lawsuits to proceed that accuse People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals of causing false criminal charges to be brought against animal shelter workers.

The civil suits say former PETA employee Bryan Monell took a job with the Portsmouth Humane Society and secretly made videotapes in July 1999. Monell and PETA brought the information to prosecutors, who charged shelter workers Keith Jeter and Holly King with animal cruelty, according to the suits.

Jeter and King were eventually cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but their lawsuits say their work and reputations have suffered.

The Portsmouth Humane Society is a non-profit organization that works closely with the city and operates a shelter in the 2700 block of Frederick Blvd.

Jeter and King each seek $1.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Circuit Judge Von L. Piersall Jr. ruled last week that the lawsuits were legally sufficient to proceed, and attorneys on both sides continue to build their cases.

``These people were doing the best they could with what they had,'' said Bryan Meals, the attorney representing Jeter and King. ``Their goal was to treat the animals humanely, and this is what they got for it. They got dragged into criminal court.''

PETA officials maintain that they can't be held responsible for the prosecution.

``Why should PETA be in trouble for a decision made by the commonwealth's attorney's office?'' asked Kevin Martingayle, an attorney for PETA. ``The plaintiffs are seeking more revenge.''

Monell videotaped kittens and dogs with severe upper respiratory infections, mange, eye infections and broken bones. Some had not received immediate emergency care, according to court records.

Jeter became the shelter's executive director in October 1996. After the PETA investigation, he faced 32 misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty and failure to provide adequate care. King, then a kennel assistant, faced six misdemeanor charges.

Substitute Judge Anthony J. Nicolo said during Jeter's August 2000 trial that he did not like what he saw on the videotapes. But he said he did not believe that Jeter intended to break state laws governing the care and treatment of animals.

Jeter and King were acquitted in separate trials.

Meals criticized the prosecution of his clients, saying the criminal investigation was incomplete and based almost entirely on the videotapes.

The suit accuses PETA officials of trying to use the videotapes to influence how the shelter was managed.

Meals would not elaborate on the damage that Jeter and King suffered, saying that would come out as the case unfolds. Jeter has continued as the shelter's director, and King now works for the Portsmouth police animal control unit.

Jeter said in a recent interview that conditions have changed at the shelter.

When the videotape was made in July and August 1999, the shelter had only four workers, Jeter said. Now there are about 12.

The position of kennel manager was added to oversee animal care, while Jeter tends to administrative duties. The shelter also is raising money to buy new cages.

PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr said organization officials are pleased with some of the changes but not completely satisfied.

The suits have not deterred the group from continuing undercover investigations, Kerr said. Another recent investigation, he said, has led to animal cruelty convictions in North Carolina.

PETA's undercover work has landed the organization in court before.

A New Jersey research laboratory sued the animal-rights group, alleging that a PETA agent posing as a lab worker stole trade secrets while collecting information about how animals were treated. In a 1997 settlement, PETA was required to return or destroy information it obtained, but it was not responsible for monetary damages.

Reach Amy Jeter at ajeter@pilotonline.com or 446-2793.
 

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