Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill has lent his support to a new bill that revises existing state law regarding animal cruelty.
The bill, Substitute House Bill 1304, won unanimous support from the Washington Legislature.
On April 14, the State Senate approved the bill 41-0. The State House of Representatives passed the bill with a 98-0 vote on April 19.
The Legislature has added a new section to the state's existing animal cruelty act. The new language is worded as follows: "A person is guilty of animal cruelty in the first degree when ... he or she, with criminal negligence, starves, dehydrates, or suffocates an animal and as a result causes: a) substantial and unjustifiable physical pain that extends for a period sufficient to cause considerable suffering; or b) death."
Currently, the bill is on the governor's desk awaiting a signature for it to become law.
O'Neill said if the bill had been in force sooner, it could have helped his office in a recent high-profile case in Klickitat County.
"It would have made the prosecution against Teri Cooley easier, as we would not have had to prove criminal intent to obtain felony convictions," O'Neill explained.
Cooley, a Trout Lake resident, was charged with 11 counts of animal cruelty in the first degree in February 2004 after nine of Cooley's horses starved to death on her property.
Some county residents expressed outrage when Cooley was later sentenced to serve only 14 days in jail and 46 days on a work crew after a plea bargain agreement in which she offered a guilty plea to one count of animal cruelty in the first degree and three counts of animal cruelty in the second degree.
At the time the plea bargain deal was revealed last October, O'Neill said that he believed the animal cruelty laws needed strengthening.
"I wish we had tougher statues for animal cruelty in the first degree. They generally don't give you a lot of teeth," he said then.
O'Neill said that after the new bill was passed by the Legislature, he sent a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire to express his support for the bill and request that she sign it into law. In his letter, he explained what had transpired in the Cooley case.
By state law, animal cruelty is considered a Class C felony. Sentences for a Class C felony range up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
O'Neill said he hoped area residents would contact the governor's office and urge Gov. Gregoire to sign the new legislation.
"She is expected to sign it," O'Neill said. "I also asked that the sentencing provisions be looked to so that an offender could not be sentenced less for a felony as opposed to a misdemeanor."