It was mental illness, not malice, that Katheryn Portman said led her to leave a pitbull name Bruno to starve to death in a Riviera Beach motel nearly three years ago.
Still, at the end of a sentencing hearing Monday in an animal cruelty case that Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said was so egregious he decided to personally handle its prosecution, Circuit Judge Laura Johnson set aside Portman’s pleas for leniency and sentenced the 43-year-old mother of four to 18 months in prison and an additional three years of probation.
The sentence comes more than three weeks after a trial where Aronberg and Assistant State Attorney Judith Arco convinced a jury that Portman was guilty of both a felony charge of cruelty to animals and a misdemeanor charge of unlawful abandonment or confinement of an animal.
The 8-year-old pitbull died two days after a hotel worker took him to the Paws2Help shelter after the worker found the emaciated, diseased dog in a cluttered, dirty room that Portman had abandoned at the Sands Motel on Beach Court. The maintenance man became a star witness in Portman’s trial, although Portman’s defense was that the dog wasn’t hers and could have possibly belonged to the worker himself.
Portman’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Allie Menegakis, had asked Johnson on Monday to sentence Portman to the nearly six months she’s already spent at the Palm Beach County Jail and put her on probation immediately. Menegakis highlighted Portman’s mental health issues and said her severe depression, which she said led to the incident, can be treated with medication and therapy.
“We don’t believe that any additional jail time will address these issues,” Menegakis told Johnson in court, later adding after the sentencing hearing: “I think depression can be a debilitating disease and unfortunately I don’t think that prison will help her.”
Arco agreed Monday that Portman suffered from mental health issues and acknowledged an incident that led to Portman’s placement in a psychiatric center under the Baker Act, but also pointed to Portman’s long alleged history of neglecting animals.
But she and Aronberg also noted Portman’s history of alleged abuse and neglect of animals. According to arrest reports, Animal Care and Control workers had previously impounded two of her pets before Bruno’s death. Arco brought up other allegations of abuse when questioning Portman Monday, and Aronberg after the hearing said Portman even after her arrest had violated the terms of her pretrial release by getting yet another pet.
Portman’s fiancee testified on her behalf, as did defense attorney Bill Abramson, who said he had represented Portman in previous cases and heard through mutual friends about the decline in her mental health before the time of the incident.
Abramson, who told Johnson that he has struggled with mental illness and currently takes medication himself, said that he thought therapy and medicine would address Portman’s issues.
But Johnson in her sentencing said the severity of the crime Portman committed warranted the prison sentence.
Aronberg, who did not speak during the sentencing hearing, afterward said he has picked animal cruelty cases for both his forays into trial work since he took office in 2013 because the crime, when it goes unchecked, can often be a gateway crime to domestic violence and other violent crimes.
“I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its most vulnerable,” Aronberg said. “So I want the message to be clear that we do not tolerate animal cruelty in Palm Beach County.”
Weeks after the trial, one of the details that remained with Aronberg was that at the time he was found, Bruno had been so severely neglected that his nails had grown into long sharp claws. These nails then gouged his flesh and created large wounds when the dog tried the scratch his ears, where he also had developed an ear infection so severe that maggots were growing in his ears.
Aronberg said that while mental health issues are a major part of the criminal justice system statewide, and he believes that more should be done to address those problems on the front end, it would be a sign of a troubled society if cases of animal cruelty like Bruno’s went unpunished.
“Mental health is often part of the cases we see, but defendants who commit heinous crimes must be held accountable for their actions,” Aronberg said.