It took a Parker County jury less than an hour on Aug. 27 to find Linda Kay Pharis guilty on nine counts of Cruelty To Livestock Animals, all relating to the grisly August 12, 2011, discovery of eight dead horses near Weatherford, Texas. Another horse was later euthanized due to its poor condition.
The unanimous verdict of the three-man, three-woman jury and the judge’s punishment sentence followed a two-day trial that started Aug. 26. At the defendant’s request, County Court At Law No. 2 Judge Ben Akers determined her punishment.
On Aug. 28, the 55-year-old Carnegie, Okla., resident was sentenced to one year in jail, straight time, with no good time or trustee credit allowed, in Weatherford’s Parker County Jail. She was also ordered to pay a $4,000 fine for each count, totaling $36,000, plus court costs. Each count carried a maximum sentence of up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $4,000. The judge also considered but denied Pharis’s probation request.
After the trial, jurors were informed Pharis had turned down a negotiated plea offer that would have included two years probation, 150 community service hours and no jail time. “She should have taken the deal,” one male juror said.
Two of six jurors who unanimously found Pharis guilty told Quarter Horse News they don’t believe she’s the only person to blame for the nine horse deaths. They also said by not taking appropriate action she contributed to their deaths.
“I just wish she would have called someone,” said a female juror from Azle, Texas. “She doesn’t deserve to go to jail, but she needs to be punished.”
Another juror, a man who lives in Willow Park, Texas, said the jury did not believe Pharis when she said she was not responsible for looking out for the horses. Even if that were true, he added, she could have taken action to prevent their suffering and their eventual deaths, since she lived near them and saw them often.
“She told us she’s an animal lover. My big thing is that she knew and she did nothing at all,” the male juror said. “There’s no joy in this verdict, but who was going to speak up for the nine horses?”
Prosecuting attorneys Ken Hanson and Natalie Barnett, assistant district attorneys with the Parker County Attorney’s Office, said the defendant had lived on property near the horses. Pharis was in charge of the their welfare and she neglected duties that included making sure they had enough food and water, they contended.
Two veterinarians testified the horses were malnourished and had not received any water for five to eight days prior to their deaths. This was also during a heat wave and drought within a North Texas area well known for its horses.
The defendant’s attorney, Chris Castanon, of Weatherford, Texas, and Pharis maintained repeatedly she was not the horses’ caretaker, and she had only been checking up on them as a favor to their owner, Keith Hall. Hall, according to court documents, lives in Litchfield Park, Ariz. He is set to face charges relating to the same horses plus 1990 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity Open Champion Millie Montana, a broodmare he owned, on Sept. 9 at the Parker County courthouse. “Millie” was euthanized due to her poor condition. A foal at her side survived.
A tearful Pharis took the stand as the only witness in her own defense. She testified that she had agreed to check on the horses for Hall every three days, but someone else living near the pasture was in charge of taking care of them. Hall never paid her to take care of his horses, and they were not her responsibility, she said.
“When I came upon the horses, I was in shock,” Pharis said. “I didn’t think that could happen. I spent my whole life taking care of animals and trying to make sure they were safe.”
One of the prosecution’s three witnesses directly disputed that testimony. Parker County Sheriff’s Department investigator Louis Sherman said he interviewed Pharis at the scene the same day the dead horses were found by law enforcement officials and animal care specialists. That day, the investigator said Pharis presented herself to him as the person in charge of taking care of them. He taped an interview where she said that she was caring for them, and it was played for the jury during the trial.
Pharis’s attorney objected to the court playing the tape, because the investigator had not read his client her Miranda Rights and he didn’t tell her she had the right to an attorney. At the time, Sherman said she had not been arrested and she was not a suspect. The judge overruled the objection and allowed the tape as evidence.
During the punishment phase of the trial, Hanson stressed to the judge that Pharis, while perhaps not the only person responsible for the death of the nine horses, had repeatedly been dishonest with the court regarding her role. He asked the judge to assess maximum one-year terms in each of the nine horse death cases, and to stack five of them, giving Pharis a potential five-year jail term. The court’s judgment, he said, should send a message to everyone from trainers to casual horse owners that not properly taking care of horses will not be tolerated in the county.
“I think justice was served,” Hanson said following Wednesday’s judgment.
Pharis’s attorney, Castanon, argued his client had no prior criminal record, and she was a good person who had made a tragic mistake. He asked the court to place her on probation and assess lighter court fees, because she’s living solely on monthly disability payments. The trial, Castanon added, should remind everyone they should check on their horses, livestock or pets regularly and make sure they have food and water every day.