6 Men, 14 Horses, & 160 Baseless Counts of Criminal Animal Cruelty

When The Equiery first reported on the case of the 14 cart ponies seized in Baltimore, we thought the seizure was tinged with racism and classism – and no small amount of elitism. That was January 2015.

Fourteen months later, we are convinced of it.

Unlike the animal control and State’s Attorney’s offices in various Maryland counties, most of which have been very cooperative, providing The Equiery with documentation regarding seizures in equine cases (special shout-outs to the State’s Attorneys in Queen Anne’s, Anne Arundel and Washington Counties), the Baltimore City Health Department and the State’s Attorney’s office either ignored our requests or provided meaningless “official statements.” That made us uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, even more troubling, the photographs of the seized cart ponies, posted by the rescue with which the city had contracted (and with which the rescue apparently hoped to raise funds  did not indicate that the animals were malnourished or underweight.  As rescues are under contract with the seizing authority, they are prohibited from speaking on the record about the legal cases involving the animals in their care.  In fact, rescues often give the animals different names so that the general public cannot directly link them to the pending legal cases.

So, like the men who were being prosecuted, we waited. We hoped that the six defendants would have their day in court, so that we, the community, could learn the full story. Instead of rumors about why the City seized the horses, the City would have to explain, on the record, why the horses were seized. 

The Arabber World

11196351_763705190414898_3253065182676220873_nBe it a pony, horse, donkey or mule, the “Arabber” pulls a cart through the streets of inner city Baltimore, its owner hawking wares and occasionally tinker services.  These cart ponies live in city-based stables. They are owned and cared for by the smallest of small business owners: a person trying to eke out a living by bringing something rare but desired to the poorest of Baltimore neighborhoods: fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sociologist refer to these inner city poor and working class neighborhoods as “food deserts.” While the neighborhoods might have a convenience store or a bodega, perishables are rare. Traveling to higher-end neighborhoods offering grocery stores is generally not a practical option for residents. But that doesn’t mean that the residents don’t value and desire fresh produce, and an enterprising individual can eke out a living filling that niche.

The defendants, like most of those in the “Arabber” trade, are black. They are poor. And they are not choirboys.  They have rap sheets. At least one has the known alias of “Scruffy.” Their court cases are mostly peppered with petty crimes and misdemeanors, possession, pot, firearms, occasional burglaries and a goodly number of paternity lawsuits.

The ponies and horses in question certainly do not lead the lives of the majority of horses that are owned by the readers of this publication. Arabber cart ponies and horses often live in old, ramshackle buildings which have been converted to stabling. Daily exercise is pulling a cart, not romping in pastures. But that does not mean that, by definition, these animals have bad lives and suffer from either neglect or cruelty. They just have different lives from the ones living on our farms. Not good, not bad. Just different.

The Baltimore Sun’s  Justin Fenton, who covered the trial, reported:

“Sharon Miller, director of the city’s animal cruelty division, participated in the raid. She testified that her opinion of the condition of the stalls was in part based on her experience riding and showing horses while growing up and working at a boarding stable. In response to a question from a defense attorney, Miller said she had never observed stables of ‘working’ horses.”

What had offended the director? Apparently, cobwebs. And that the stalls had not, that day, been cleaned to her standard prior to her arrival, and the water buckets were empty. The stable hand, apparently running late that day, appeared while the raid was in progress. Unable to execute his tasks of mucking and watering the horses due to the raid, he was also charged. During the trial, the director reported that the stalls were wet with urine, to which the defense noted that that was, therefore, proof that the horses had actually had water prior to her arrival, and were therefore not dehydrated.

The prosecution’s case eroded even more when their own witness, Dr. Rich Forfa (Monocacy Equine Associates) testified on the stand that the horses were, quite simply, not neglected.

Dr. Forfa explained to The Equiery that he had conducted the intake exams on the horses when they arrived at Days End Farm, and that, although the horses did have some very minor maintenance issues, in his professional opinion, the City had no cause to seize the horses, and this he told the State’s Attorneys office at that time. The City decided to proceed anyway. (There was one somewhat underweight horse, but because the horse had clearly just arrived from New Holland – and still  had the auction house stickers on it – seizing it was also not justified).

Despite being frank with the State’s Attorney’s office that the horses should not have been seized, the prosecutor nevertheless put Forfa on the stand, at which point Forfa testified that the horses were not neglected and should not have been seized – much to the delight of the public defender and the defendants.

Apparently, the judge agreed with Forfa.

On March 10, 2016, 14 months after the horses were seized, Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein acquitted owners Ernest Ford, Deon Dorsey, Leon Hardy, Donte Miller, Malik Muhammed and William Murray on all counts of criminal cruelty. All men were found resoundingly “not guilty” on all charges of criminal neglect and cruelty. (The only conviction was a failure to properly post stable and owner identification. The punishment? Post the notice.)

Innocent until Proven Guilty

Fourteen months later, The Equiery believes even more strongly that this case is rooted in racism, classism and elitism – and Dr. Forfa concurs.

The city had no business – and perhaps no legal right – to seize those horses based on the opinions of misguided do-gooders who happen to be in positions of authority. What if this had been you?

It does not matter that these men are not what we might consider “educated horsemen.” It does not matter that some of these men have been convicted of other crimes. It does not matter that these horses do not live like the privileged horses of most of our readers.

The city, without cause, seized the horses of poor or working class black inner-city men. Lacking means, one signed over his horse immediately. According to the Sun, the other men were unable to navigate the legal system quickly enough to file the appropriate paperwork within the mere 72 hours allotted that would have allowed them to reclaim their animals.

The men have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Cleared. They did not plead out to lesser charges. They did not plead “no contest.” Charges were not dismissed, diminished or reduced. The men were prosecuted, tried and found “not guilty” in a court of law. But they no longer have their businesses or their animals.

One of the most sacred principles of American criminal justice is “innocent until proven guilty.” However, all too often, our actual government system is based upon a presumption of guilt, particularly when it comes to animals. And that is just wrong.

Compound this situation with the reality that the horses of working-class, urban black men (who, yes, are not choirboys) were unlawfully seized, and then relocated to a predominantly white, rural enclave and then given to new homes…what does it say about us, as a society?

This is shameful chapter of Maryland’s equestrian heritage.

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The Equiery applauds Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks for speaking the outrage felt by so many.

Listen to Rodricks’ podcast with Malik Muhammad, a 60-year-old man who has been out of business since the raid. His horses, Prince and Gucci Man, were seized. Muhammad has no idea where they are. Hear about his $2500 brand-new, Amish-crafted, never-used cart, never used because the city took Muhammad’s horses away before he could hitch them up.