The District Attorney’s Office will not pursue criminal charges against employees at Butterball, LLC in Sampson, Duplin and Onslow counties following animal cruelty allegations made by a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, citing “insufficient grounds” to proceed.
District Attorney Ernie Lee released a statement Monday saying he had reviewed the allegations and evidence presented to him, including footage and other documents, since being contacted by general counsel for the organization, Mercy for Animals, at the end of October.
“Pursuant to my review of the facts and applicable law concerning the allegations of animal cruelty by employees at Butterball, LLC in Duplin, Onslow, and Sampson counties, I have determined that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with any criminal charges,” Lee stated.
Mercy for Animals, as depicted on their website, is “dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.” An attorney for the group told Lee that the organization believed alleged acts of animal cruelty were committed at several turkey houses located in Duplin, Onslow and Sampson counties. She informed Lee that an employee of Mercy for Animals obtained employment from Butterball, LLC and worked in the turkey houses in question from approximately Oct. 1 through Oct. 26, 2012.
While working in these turkey houses, the employee witnessed what he believed to be acts of alleged animal cruelty and documented his findings on a video recording, Lee stated in the press release.
At that initial meeting, Lee requested a copy of the footage, which was reviewed days later along with other documents provided by Mercy for Animals in support of its allegations. About a week later, the attorney for Mercy for Animals, a director of investigations and an investigator met with Lee and Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Maultsby at Lee’s office in Jacksonville to discuss the investigation and applicable law in the case.
Throughout the rest of November, Lee stated that he continued to review the video footage, while requesting that five other Superior Court assistant district attorneys — two assigned to Onslow, two to Duplin and one in Sampson — conduct a similar review of the footage and documents. Additionally, Lee requested and reviewed N.C. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations concerning the handling of poultry, as well as documents related to the Animal Welfare Program for Butterball, LLC.
“After reviewing the video footage and documentary material, I do not believe that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that acts of animal cruelty were committed by the employees depicted in the video based upon applicable North Carolina law,” Lee stated.
The law, specifically N.C. General Statute § 14 360, makes it a misdemeanor for any person to intentionally wound, injure, or torment an animal or cause or procure an animal to be wounded, injured, killed or tormented. “Tormented” means an act that causes unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death. “Intentionally” refers to an act committed knowingly and without justifiable excuse. “Maliciously” means act committed intentionally and with malice or bad motive. If the act is done maliciously, it is a felony by statute.
There are a number of exceptions, including lawful activities conducted for purposes of production of livestock or poultry and for the primary purpose of providing food for human or animal consumption.
“Neglect and abuse of turkeys at any farm will not be tolerated since ultimately these turkeys will be subject to human consumption,” Lee stated. “However, in order to proceed with any criminal case, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of NCGS § 14 360 and prove that the actions of the employees do not fall within the exception in the statute involving production of poultry for human consumption.”
The footage and documents Lee reviewed depicted workers attempting to move and moving numerous turkeys from turkey houses to trucks. The turkeys are being moved from the turkey houses to the truck conveyor belt for apparent slaughter for human consumption, with the overwhelming majority of them moved without any physical contact from the workers. Some are moved with physical assistance by workers, Lee noted.
“The workers did not appear to attempt to wound, injure or torment the turkeys, but rather the workers’ contact with the turkeys appeared to be with the intent of moving the turkeys from the turkey houses to a conveyor belt leading to a transport truck,” Lee stated. “Any contact with the turkeys did not appear to be egregious or malicious in nature and did not appear for the purpose of tormenting the turkeys.”
The district attorney said he did not believed the workers’ conduct would be in violation of the law. In his statement, Lee reiterated that the State has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to any alleged criminal offenses committed in North Carolina.
There are insufficient grounds to proceed criminally based upon the evidence in these specific cases, he said.
“Even in the light most favorable to the State, from my review of the video footage, the regulations concerning the handling of poultry and the applicable law in North Carolina,” Lee stated, “there appears to be insufficient evidence to prove any alleged abuse of turkeys beyond a reasonable doubt in the investigation before me involving the Butterball turkey houses in Duplin, Onslow and Sampson counties.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.