HYDE PARK — Several dozen protesters rallied outside the Lamoille County courthouse Friday to demand that animal abuse charges be refiled against an Eden woman who was found incompetent to stand trial.
In April, Superior Court Judge Thomas Carlson dismissed eight counts of felony animal cruelty against Carol Byrd, whose last name was Merchant when the case began. An independent psychiatric assessment found her legally incompetent.
The charges were brought after authorities reported finding nearly 100 animals at Merchant’s home in February 2015 in horrifying conditions.
Protesters characterized the current outcome of the case as unacceptable.
“No one should be able to cause such distress and chaos and escape all consequences,” said Brenda Marotto, adopted owner of Jack, one of the dogs removed from the house. “Ms. Merchant should never again be allowed to own or live with animals.”
At the rally’s conclusion, members of the crowd held up signs bearing the names of animals removed from the house and read them aloud. They then shared a moment of silence.
Immediately after the rally, a delegation of the protesters walked down the street to the office of Paul Finnerty, the Lamoille County state’s attorney. The protesters gave Finnerty a binder containing a petition they said had 4,000 signatures that called for him to refile the criminal charges.
Finnerty told the delegation his ability to prosecute the case is limited.
“I work within a system that has certain rules, and I have to follow those rules,” he said. “If people are found to be not competent by an independent forensic psychiatrist who works regularly for the court, then I have to accept that opinion.”
Members of the rally delegation said Merchant was competent enough to get married and continue going shopping for herself since 2015.
Finnerty responded that the legal definition of competence is different from its definition in common parlance.
“In order to be found legally competent,” he said, “someone has to be able to participate effectively in their own defense. It’s different than saying, ‘Oh, well, she can go to the grocery store and buy her groceries — she must be competent.’ It’s not the same idea.”
Finnerty also said there’s no legal basis for another of the protesters’ requests: an injunction prohibiting future animal ownership by the woman involved.
“What your petition is seeking is some sort of civil order outside of the criminal system that prohibits her from possessing animals at any time in the future, and that particular mechanism just doesn’t exist,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea, but the mechanism doesn’t exist.”
After the protesters left, Finnerty spoke to reporters.
The criminal case was dismissed without prejudice, Finnerty said, which means that if the woman were found competent by a future psychiatric assessment she could stand trial.
Finnerty has until February to file charges again under the statute of limitations, but he said he’s not confident the situation will change before then.
“If I get information from the Department of Mental Health that makes it seem like it’s worth bringing her back to court and having her examined again, then I’ll certainly consider that,” he said. But he said sometimes people’s situations are permanent and prevent them from being found competent.
Jen Kittell of the group For the Love of Dogs/Vermont Dog Rescue helped organize the rally.
“I want accountability,” Kittell said afterward, calling for monitoring of any animals in the woman’s home.
“I’m hoping that the state will step in — or even the town of Eden, where she resides — I hope they will step in and due their due diligence,” Kittell said. “You know, keep an eye on how many animals she has in the home, make sure they’re healthy and registered, receiving vet care, all that good stuff.”