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Fate of Niko the dog unclear following latest setback for owners
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Fate of Niko the dog unclear following latest setback for owners

The Virginia Court of Appeals has denied an appeal seeking to overturn the execution of an Albemarle County dog deemed vicious by the state in 2014.

Nine-year-old Niko, a Staffordshire bull terrier, has been in isolated custody at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA for more than six years after a woman said he got loose in her yard and killed her cat.

After exhausting other options, his owners pursued a legal strategy that sought to rehome and rehabilitate him instead of him being euthanized, as dictated by the court.

The long legal battle has seen multiple appeals since 2015, with the latest being denied by the Virginia Court of Appeals on March 9.

The legal saga kicked off in 2015, when one of Niko’s owners, Toni Stacey, was convicted of being the owner of a dog that killed a cat. On Aug. 6, 2015, Stacey was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 90 days suspended and, per the sentencing order, Niko’s euthanization was a condition of Stacey’s suspended sentence.

Stacey, along with Niko’s other owner, Audrey Wells, appealed the decision and filed a lawsuit against Albemarle County and the local SPCA on Wells’ behalf seeking to stop the euthanization. They argued that Wells was not convicted of a crime that would lead to Niko being put down and was never given a proper hearing.

However, Albemarle Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins granted the defendants’ request to throw out the case, ruling that Wells had been given the chance to speak in court prior and had chosen not to.

Stacey’s appeal of her conviction to the state Court of Appeals was similarly upheld, despite her claims that there was insufficient evidence presented at trial that Niko had been declared a dangerous dog and that he had subsequently killed a neighbor’s cat. Stacey subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and her petition was denied.

On Dec. 8, 2016, the Albemarle County Circuit Court issued an order for Niko to be euthanized because Stacey had exhausted all her rights of appeal. However, due to Wells’ lawsuit, the execution was again stayed.

By May 2019, Wells had exhausted the appeals in her case and the pair switched legal strategy and asked the county circuit court to lift the stay on Niko and allow him to be “disposed” of, using language that differed from the court’s original sentencing order.

The commonwealth then asked the circuit court to clarify the terms of the May 17, 2019, disposal order and subsequently the circuit court entered a new order on May 24, 2019, that “reinstat[ed] its [o]rder of December 8, 2016, [directing] the dog ‘Niko’ or ‘Nikko’ be euthanized.”

Stacey filed a motion for the circuit court to vacate its May 24, 2019, euthanasia order, arguing for the first time that state code did not authorize the circuit court to order Niko’s euthanization. Following a hearing, the circuit court issued an opinion that denied Stacey’s motion and again ordered Niko be disposed of by euthanization. Stacey then appealed that decision to the Virginia Court of Appeals, which denied her appeal earlier this month.

Much of the Court of Appeals’ denial is based around the language in Stacey’s sentencing order, which explicitly indicated that Niko’s execution was a condition of her suspended sentence.

“In the present case, the circuit court exercised its authority to suspend a criminal sentence conditioned upon Niko’s euthanization,” the March opinion reads. “Stacey neither objected to the reasonableness of this condition of probation in the circuit court nor did she assign error to the conditions of her suspended sentence on direct appeal to this Court.”

Because Stacey never timely objected to the sentence or the condition under which it was suspended, the court wrote that she waived whatever alleged errors the circuit court may have made. Any such unpreserved and unappealed errors have now become the law of the case and are binding on the parties in this subsequent appeal, per the opinion.

Because it has been more than a year since Stacey was sentenced for the initial misdemeanor charge, she cannot be required serve the sentence, said Wells’ and Stacey’s attorney, Elliott Harding. Without the option for Stacey to still serve her sentence, Harding said he believes the county court cannot enforce the euthanasia and he said he is seeking clarification from Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley.

“The ruling from the Court of Appeals went a long way to clarify the complex history of the case,” Harding said. “We’re at a point where we believe Ms. Stacey will no longer be required to euthanize Niko due to the passage of time. We’re hopeful his life is now spared and we’re optimistic he’ll be able to run free in the near future.”

Niko remains at the SPCA, where, according to Harding, the dog is allowed routine visits from his owners, who are permitted to play with him. Wells and Stacey regularly post updates and videos of Niko via a Facebook group with about 9,000 members who routinely send encouraging messages of support to the imprisoned pooch.

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