By Lorelei Pierce
Dogs, cats, horses, and even a tortoise are singing the praises of Judge Susan Skinner’s Animal Abuse Docket. An animal abuse report led to one of Judge Skinner’s most rewarding cases: Thirty-six pitbulls were rescued after being kept in extremely dire living conditions and with injuries consistent with dogfighting. The offender was tried before a jury, found guilty, and sentenced to the maximum punishment.
This was one of the first cases she worked on in the animal abuse docket and set the tone for rescuing many more animals. As a result, the lives of Bexar County animals have improved significantly since The Honorable Judge Susan Skinner took the bench in County Court #14 and established Bexar County’s animal abuse docket.
When Judge Susan Skinner first took office, there were 54 animal abuse cases pending. She recognized this number was too small to be realistic for a jurisdiction the size of Bexar County. Skinner took responsibility for animal abuse cases from the surrounding areas and set up a system to both clear the backlog of cases and move new ones through the court in a timely and efficient manner, hence bringing animals the justice they deserve. Since establishing the docket, Judge Skinner’s court has helped many animals, in addition to keeping up with all her regular County Court duties.
Along the way, Judge Skinner has gained vast experience in animal cruelty. For example, she noticed that there are well-intentioned people who place animals in poor living conditions. While they mean to help, these individuals are also the most likely to be repeat offenders. She now implements longer probations and long-term check-ins on such people to make sure more animals do not end up in the same situation. Skinner is very results-driven and focuses on the best long-term outcomes in her rulings.
Animal abuse cases are unique in that they are less straightforward than other misdemeanors. Cases such as theft and DWI are more straightforward, while animal abuse cases are more complicated. Often animal abuse cases have many more counts, because of the number of animals and instances involved. There’s also a difference between animal abuse, which is intentional, and animal neglect, where animals are kept in poor conditions. Misdemeanor prosecutors are usually less experienced in these types of cases, especially in something as specific and multidimensional as animal cruelty. All adding layers of complexity to the animal abuse docket.
As a result of their difficulty, these cases were historically pushed aside. With Skinner’s changes to the system, these cases now receive the attention they deserve: they are heard promptly and paired with prosecutors experienced in animal abuse cases.
“Animals are victims too,” Skinner says, and you can tell from speaking with her that she is very passionate about their rights. Her hard work has been recognized by law enforcement entities and animals’ rights groups, including being named one of America’s Top Ten Animal Defenders 2018 by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Judge Skinner has been the recipient of numerous awards and endorsements including San Antonio Police Officers’ Association, Bexar County Adult Probation Officers’ Association, Pastors PAC, Texas Leadership Institute for Public Advocacy, and AFL-CIO.
She hopes now that animal abuse cases are taken more seriously, people will say something when they see something, and the suffering of animals will be prevented. Skinner is up for re-election this November and plans to continue her fight for animal rights if her term continues. Judge Skinner’s goal is to eventually have an Animal Specialty Court. She also hopes the newly-elected District Attorney will establish an Animal Protection Unit, as many other District Attorney’s Offices have done nationwide.
To learn more about the link between animal abuse and domestic violence, click here: The Link Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: Innovative Bexar County Criminal Courts Address Violence in the Home.