Animal rights campaigners applauded as two men were jailed in connection with a savage attack on a family’s pet dog in the North.
Andrew Richard Stewart, who admitted setting fire to the pet two years ago, was handed a 20-month sentence at Belfast Crown Court, 10 months of which will be served in custody with the remaining 10 on licence.
The 23-year-old, from Meadowfield Court in Aghalee, Co Antrim, was also banned from keeping animals for 30 years.
Jamie Downey, 23, from Chestnut Hall Avenue, Moira, Craigavon, Co Armagh, was jailed for six months after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice.
Cody, a three-year-old border collie was left unrecognisable after the attack in August 2012. She was so badly burned her ribs and other joints were visible through the charred flesh.
Cody survived for two weeks but had to be put down when vets concluded she would never fully recover.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland said it had been an appalling attack on a much loved pet.
He said: “Stewart savagely attacked her (Cody) in the most evil and vile fashion. It is beyond comprehension that any human being could act in such a manner towards a defenceless creature, which was posing no threat to him.”
Stewart, who was 21 at the time of the offence, stood in the dock flanked by prison guards with his hands clasped to his front, staring straight ahead. At times it appeared he may cry but, when the custodial sentence was handed down his expression was blank.
The judge said he had taken into account the anguish suffered by the dog’s owners, Natalie and Martin Agnew and their two young sons – one of whom was only six at the time.
He said: “This was a well-structured family, living in what would appear to be a normal happy family life in a quiet village in rural Northern Ireland. The parents and two young boys had a much loved pet, which was so cruelly taken from them.
“Each has had to suffer the anguish of seeing their dog with these serious injuries, of living through the attempted rehabilitative treatment, and then the parents will have had to come to the decision to end Cody’s life in circumstances which were not of their making or choosing.
“Subsequent to that decision, there has followed a period of two years of having to live and re-live the events and finally the preparation for the trial which would have necessitated both Natalie Agnew and young Jake having to give evidence.
“For the parents, they have had the unenviable task of having to explain to their young sons how this could have happened -- why any human being would do such a thing to an animal, particularly their beloved family pet.”
Stewart had denied the charge of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal for two years but changed his plea to guilty during the second day of his trial last month.
The dramatic u-turn which happened minutes before Mrs Agnew and her son Jake were due to give evidence happened after Downey decided to tell the truth, the court heard.
Stewart’s defence barrister said it had been a senseless act that was completely out of character and which had happened after Stewart had consumed a heavy mixture of alcohol over two days.
The judge rejected claims Stewart was sorry.
He said: “In this case there has been no remorse. In my view the recent expressions of regret are merely evidence of self-pity. The plea was very late, and the change of mind only followed when Downey had indicated to his counsel that he was now prepared to tell the truth.”
The court was told both men had been partying together and had gone for a stroll round the Co Antrim village of Maghaberry to walk-off the effects of alcohol.
As they passed the Agnew family home, Cody attached herself to them following the men to a nearby quarry. There, they played fetch with the dog but, when Downey went to urinate Stewart doused the animal in diesel and ignited her coat.
Although both men argued about what had happened, Downey agreed to stand by his friend and they concocted a web of lies for the police.
The court heard Downey had wanted to come clean about what happened but was intimidated by the widespread publicity and public revulsion surrounding the case.
Prosecutors agreed to leave animal cruelty charges against Downey on the court books after he had an 11th-hour change of heart and admitted perverting the course of justice at the trial last month.
Jailing him for six months, the judge said even though he was not involved in setting fire to the dog, Downey had done nothing to help the defenceless animal.
Judge McFarland added: “He did nothing to alleviate the suffering of Cody knowing that she had been injured in a most grievous fashion, and then through some misguided loyalty to Stewart agreed with him to concoct what were false stories to divert police attention away from both defendants.
“No-one is ever punished for the company they keep and the friendships they maintain, but I have to say Downey did show extremely poor judgement in promoting his friendship with Stewart, knowing the conduct that Stewart was capable of.”
Downey, who was dressed in a grey suit, grey shirt and blue tie showed no emotion as the sentence was passed.
The defendants did not speak or look at each other in the dock.
The public gallery of courtroom 12 in the Laganside complex in Belfast city centre was packed to capacity with animal rights campaigners, some of whom were wearing Justice For Cody T-shirts. They clapped when the judge imposed the custodial sentences.
Speaking outside the court Cody’s owners said they were pleased with the outcome.
Ms Agnew said: “We are absolutely delighted after the two-year-long fight that we have had for justice. We have more than we expected so, we are delighted. It is some sort of closure for us.”
The family now have two new dogs but Mrs Agnew said her two sons were still coming to terms with the tragedy.
She added: “The kids are still having trouble sleeping at night and dealing with the issues. We still have the questions that we can’t answer. While we do have a sense of closure we still have to deal with the ongoing problems with our children.
“I have thrown all my emotions into fighting for justice and I think now the reality is going to hit – the true horror of what happened. In a sense we are delighted but there are hard times ahead as well.”
The Agnews also said they hoped the sentences act as a deterrent.
More than 60,000 people pledged support for the Justice For Cody Facebook campaign and an internet fund has so far raised £30,000 for animal shelters in Northern Ireland and the Guide Dogs Association.
The Agnew family have expressed gratitude for the public support they have received.
Paying tribute to the 70 plus campaigners who attended the court hearings, Mrs Agnew said: “They have inspired us to go on with the fight whenever we thought it was a hopeless case to be honest at the start. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”