The sentencing hearing for a Riverton woman accused of starving numerous animals to death fell apart Monday when the woman said she could no longer work with her public defender attorney.
Kathy Wright, 50, faces 10 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty. The charges stem from allegations made in December that she starved horses, goats, geese, chickens and sheep — some to death — at her home west of Riverton.
The Fremont County Public Defender’s Office assigned Lisa Kisling to defend Wright.
Wearing peach-colored denim pants and a peach-colored T-shirt, and weeping intermittently, Wright told Riverton Circuit Court Judge Dan Stebner during her Monday hearing that she was “absolutely not” satisfied with Kisling’s representation of her, but could not afford outside counsel.
She said she had trouble understanding the terms of her March plea agreement.
What Alford Is
“I had to go to a different attorney to get an explanation of what an Alford plea is,” said Wright, still tearful.
Wright was scheduled to give an Alford plea to four of the 10 charges against her and to be sentenced.
An Alford plea is treated like a guilty plea except it’s not an admission of guilt: The defendant is merely acknowledging that the state has enough evidence to convict.
Kisling told Stebner she couldn’t comment on the issues without violating attorney-client privilege.
Judge Stebner was hesitant to interfere with the attorney-client relationship, but told Wright that he could not accept her Alford pleas and move forward in her case because of her claim that she was unsatisfied with her lawyer.
The claim makes any plea seem involuntary, the judge said.
“This court has high respect for Ms. Kisling,” said Stebner, who worked with Kisling prior when he was a Fremont County prosecutor. “She’s an experienced, competent, capable attorney.”
Stebner asked if Wright had taken the issue to Fremont Count Public Defender Supervisor Jon Gerard.
Kisling said Wright had taken the issue even higher; to state Public Defender Diane Lozano.
Set It For Trial
Fremont County Assistant Attorney Ember Oakley encouraged Stebner to set Wright for a trial on all 10 charges.
“What I don’t want to see happen is for the court to be held hostage,” said Oakley, adding that her office is willing to go to trial on the matter, though it has a lot of evidence to submit.
Stebner reasoned aloud that setting the case for a trial would give Wright more time to discuss her issues with Kisling or to submit a petition to the court to appoint a different attorney.
Wright bristled at the notion of going to trial.
“I cannot go to trial with this attorney. Cannot,” she said.
Stebner warned Wright that only under very limited circumstances do courts interfere with the public defender’s attorney assignments to cases. He told her she’ll have to demonstrate a grievance greater than “just general unhappiness or an inability to get along with your attorney.” Even then, he said, it’s “an uphill battle.”
Wright said she would file that petition.
Stebner set a June 1 pre-trial conference for Wright. Her speedy trial deadline is approaching in just more than two months, he said.
Public Defender’s Response
Gerard told Cowboy State Daily in a statement on behalf of the public defender’s office that he has never before had a client say Kisling failed to fully explain an Alford plea. Gerard said his office is prepared to defend Wright “zealously” if she chooses to go to trial.
“Lisa Kisling is a very experienced criminal defense attorney who understands how a guilty plea pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford functions,” said Gerard. “If (the) client chooses to reject a plea offer and proceed to trial, my office and Ms. Kisling will prepare to zealously defend the client against all charges.”
The Affidavit Says
If convicted on all 10 counts and sentenced consecutively, Wright faces up to five years of incarceration and up to $7,500 in fines.
According to an evidentiary affidavit filed in her case in December, Fremont County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Sarah Trehearne met Deputy Sara Lowe at Wright’s property, 54 David’s Way in Riverton, just after noon Dec. 7.
The call came after Lowe allegedly found several dead goats in pens. Some were freshly deceased while others, the affidavit says, were in various stages of decomposition.
Sheriff’s office deputies have an “extensive” history of animal cruelty calls for Wright’s property, according to the affidavit.
Lowe also saw a horse that needed “immediate veterinary care,” and described the animals as emaciated. There were sheep and goats in “deplorable” conditions and two pens containing skeletal-looking horses, the affidavit says.
Trehearne knocked at Wright’s door. No one answered.
Trehearne walked among the animals to see how they were doing and found between 10 and 20 dead animals, some of which were still warm as though they’d died that day, the affidavit says.
None had food or water. There were three bales of hay on the property, “however this was not nearly enough to feed all the animals for even one feeding,” the affidavit says.
Don’t Kill Them With Alfalfa
Dr. Guna Gamble of G Bar G Veterinary Hospital arrived to do an emergency assessment.
She said two of the goats had died that day and studying them would provide valuable insight into how the animals died.
Gamble told law enforcement agents to feed the animals a little, but not too much because they were so malnourished that overfeeding could shock their systems. She also said not to feed them the “straight alfalfa” bales on the property because they needed grass hay.
Law enforcement agents also watered the livestock with a hose they found on the property, and the animals drank immediately as though they were “all very thirsty,” the affidavit states.
Trehearne called Wright on the phone, who said her goats may have been dying of chlamydia and that a vet at the state fair had diagnosed them, according to the affidavit.
Trehearne followed up with vets in the area and tried to confirm the state-fair vet’s diagnosis. But no vets would confirm that they’d given a diagnosis, the document says, and they also said they would no longer do business with Wright.
Wright told Trehearne that she owned the “very thin horse” but did not know what was wrong with it. She said she was planning on getting it wormed and treated, then quarantined at her mother’s home across the street, the affidavit says.
Wright owned nine of the 11 horses on her property, she told Trehearne. Her mother reportedly owned the other two. Wright said she owned all the geese, chicken, sheep and goats.
The affidavit says Wright thanked Trehearne for feeding and watering her animals and asked her to make sure the hose was drained.
Trehearne seized multiple dead goats and took them to the G Bar G Veterinary Hospital for necropsy and analysis.
Dr. Glenn Gamble performed necropsies on two goats and said he believed they died of starvation. There were no fat deposits between the skin and muscle of their rib cages, no fat around their internal organs and no fat survival reserves, the affidavit relates.
Gamble also found fresh feed in their guts but no evidence of older feed, suggesting they may have had a metabolic shock from having a meal after a long period of starvation.
The Fremont County Attorney’s Office on Dec. 20 expanded its case against Wright from two animal cruelty charges to 10. They are:
Count one, for more than 20 dead sheep and goats.
Count two, for a dead red roan Nubian doe and a dead cream-colored Nigerian dwarf buck.
Count three, for cruelty toward nine horses, a sorrel gelding with a club foot, two bay mares, two red-and-white paint geldings, one roan mare, one roan gelding, one bay paint pony and one bay filly pony.
Count four, for cruelty toward a red and white paint gelding.
Count five, for cruelty toward 37 doe goats.
Count six, for cruelty toward a doe goat with mastitis (infection related to breastfeeding).
Count seven, for cruelty toward seven buck goats.
Count eight, for cruelty toward 18 ewe sheep.
Count nine, for cruelty to four ram sheep.
Count 10, for cruelty toward three geese and 15 chickens.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com