Desmond This is Desmond, the inspiration for a new Connecticut animal abuse law that played out in court this month. An advocate spoke up in the courtroom on behalf of the dog found beaten and strangled. (Photo: Justice for Desmond/Facebook)

Several years ago, a pit bull/boxer mix named Desmond was brought to a Connecticut shelter by his owner, who was worried the dog was acting jealous of her baby. Not long after, the woman's former boyfriend — with whom she allegedly had a violent relationship — tracked down the dog and adopted him from the shelter. A month later, Desmond was found beaten, starved and strangled to death. His new owner, Alex Wullaert, admitted to the animal cruelty, but avoided jail time under a diversionary program that eventually erased the charge from his record.

New legislation in the state, dubbed "Desmond's Law," hopes to provide a voice in the legal system for abused animals like him. The law was enacted in fall 2016, but the first substantive argument took place in court in early June.

Under the law, volunteer legal advocates can be appointed to represent abused animals in the courtroom. It's a judge's decision whether to appoint one, but they can be requested by either a prosecutor or a defense attorney.

The legislation was drafted by Rep. Diana Urban, who was assisted by University of Connecticut law professor Jessica Rubin. The advocates include several attorneys throughout the state and Rubin, who works with a handful of her law students.

In Connecticut, like many states, most animal cruelty cases don't proceed to trial or prosecution, says Rubin, with 80 percent of cases ending up with a dismissal or a prosecutor's decision not to pursue charges.

"We felt this statute would set up a win-win for under-enforcement of animal cruelty laws. It’s a free resource for the courts; it gives them an extra hand," Rubin says. "The court wins but also the advocate wins. For a law student, it gives them a chance to be in court and do meaningful work."

The first major court moment

University of Connecticut law professor Jessica Rubin (left) with students Yuliya Shamailova and Taylor Hansen University of Connecticut law professor Jessica Rubin (from left) with students Yuliya Shamailova and Taylor Hansen. (Photo: Jessica Rubin)

The UConn law students are working on three animal abuse cases so far. Although the cases are moving slowly through the system, the biggest day in court was in early June, when student Taylor Hansen testified in a dogfighting case involving three pit bulls.

According to the Associated Press, one dog was emaciated and had scars from fighting. It had been found on the streets, while the other two were found in a dirty home that was packed with spoiled food, animal feces and signs of dogfighting. One of the dogs had to be put to sleep.

In court, Hansen detailed the abuse the dogs had endured, described studies that linked animal abuse with human abuse, and told why she thought the man accused of raising them to fight should not be allowed in the same program Desmond's owner attended.

"We argued that it's serious and likely to recur, so we argued he should not use that program and it should proceed to trial," Rubin says. "The court disagreed because it was his first offense."

Although Rubin and her team were disappointed, the judge was amenable to several of their suggestions. The man is not allowed to have any contact with animals for the next two years and he will have to perform community service, but with no charity that has anything to do with animals.

"While I was disappointed with the court decision, I was also pleased that the court was also willing to incorporate our suggestions," Rubin says.

Looking to the future

Already, Rubin has been contacted by advocacy groups in other states, interested in instituting the program. She believes it makes sense that other states soon will follow Connecticut's lead.

"I think society and our legal system is shifting in the way it considers animals and animal interests," she says. "And second, it's really a great opportunity. It's hard to be against this. We’re just enforcing the existing laws. We’re just making sure the anti-cruelty statutes in every state are enforced."

With two large rescue dogs of her own, Rubin is a self-admitted animal person. So are the students who were chosen for the program.

"They had the right skill set," Rubin says. "A combination of passion in the underlying cause of really protecting animals but also a strong set of good legal skills."

Rubin says she has two goals with this program.

"One is that justice is served by holding people accountable for their actions and the other is a goal of deterrence," she says. "If we begin to prosecute these cases aggressively and seriously, down the road, if someone is inclined to abuse an animal, they’ll realize they can face repercussions...We’re excited and eager to see these cases play out in a way that helps the animals."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.