THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL -- MAY 21, 2012 -- Deal could dismiss most abuse charges.
Prominent Collierville horse trainer Jackie McConnell, who gained national notoriety last week with the release of an undercover videotape showing abuse of horses at his stables, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to a felony charge of violating the Horse Protection Act.
McConnell, 61, owner of Whitter Stables just outside Collierville in Fayette County, is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga on 52 federal charges.
He filed notice with the court May 8 that he will plead guilty to one felony charge of transporting and showing horses that were sored. If the judge accepts the plea, the other charges will be dismissed according to the plea agreement. Steven Ness, senior federal prosecutor, declined comment.
Also charged were Whitter Stables employees John Mays and Jeff Dockery, both from Collierville, and Joseph R. Abernathy of Olive Branch. They are expected to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge.
Attempts to contact McConnell, who won the Tennessee Walking Horse Grand Championship in 1997, were unsuccessful.
While the Horse Protection Act was intended to stop "soring" -- the use of harsh chemicals or other pain-inducing means on legs and hooves so walking horses step higher -- the federal law only bans transporting or showing horses that were sored.
"The immense suffering horses often endure simply for the sake of a showy gait is unacceptable," said Keith Dane, equine protection director for Humane Society of the United States. "Congress should act swiftly to stiffen penalties, eliminate self-regulation and close other loopholes that have allowed any trainers to continue to abuse horses ... undetected and with little or no penalty."
But soring is a violation of the state's cruelty to animals statute.
When the federal charges were announced in February, the state District Attorney General's Office in Fayette County raided McConnell's stables, seizing eight horses. McConnell, Mays and Dockery were subsequently each charged on 15 counts of animal cruelty in Fayette County. Their next court appearance in Somerville is set for June.
The state charges are misdemeanors, but the legislature is working on changing that.
A bill was passed earlier this year that would create felony penalties for aggravated cruelty to livestock, including seriously injuring a horse or other animal using acid or chemicals "without justifiable or lawful purpose." Gov. Bill Haslam has until today to decide whether to sign the bill into law.
The video was made by an undercover investigator with the Humane Society of the United States who worked at McConnell's stables and was shown Wednesday on ABC's "Nightline." That footage helped build the federal case against McConnell and his employees.
The video shows a horse being beaten in the head with an electric cattle prod, chemicals being applied to a horse's leg, and a horse lying in its stall getting hit because its legs hurt too much to stand.
The walking horse community reacted quickly, distancing itself from McConnell, saying this was the action of an individual and not an indictment of the industry.
Pepsi Co. removed its sponsorship last week of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, scheduled for Aug. 22-Sept. 1 in Shelbyville.
The Walking Horse Trainers' Association board, which licensed McConnell, voted in an emergency conference call meeting last week to strip him of his credentials.
Dane, however, said industry leaders knew McConnell was under a five-year suspension last year for violating the Horse Protection Act when the trainer brought horses from his stables to several competitions in Shelbyville.
SHOW (Sound Horses-Honest Judging-Objective Inspections-Winning Fairly) issued a statement denouncing McConnell's actions and pointing out that the video showed an individual and was not an indictment of the industry.
Leaders of SHOW, a federally sanctioned group that provides self-regulation to the walking horse community, said since its inception in 2009, the number of horses in HPA compliance has shown a dramatic increase because the group has implemented several improvements in the preshow inspecting process.
The work by the HSUS also brought to light deficiencies in the federal law that congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., hope to remedy.
"The penalties in the act are not a sufficient deterrent," said Dane at a news conference last week. "It's the cruelty part that needs to be highlighted here."
He said incarceration would be the only sufficient penalty.
Cohen co-sponsored a bill that increases funds for the Agriculture Department to investigate horse soring from $500,000 to $5 million. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., of Nashville signed on to the legislation last week.
Cohen, who served as a senator in the Tennessee General Assembly, championed several state laws to strengthen and punish people who abuse animals. In addition to the bill to increase funding for the USDA, Cohen wants to close loopholes in the HPA to create language that makes soring illegal and increase penalties for those who violate that law, said Marilyn Dillihay, his chief of staff.