When a pit bull kills a child, "all of us want to find a person who is responsible and to hold them accountable," Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke said Friday.
But Burke decided that Zachary King Sr. was not guilty of second-degree manslaughter in the death of his son "Zack Jr." from a pit bull attack in the family home last August.
Instead, he noted that several others -- including Minneapolis Animal Control -- could have warned King about the dog's violent tendencies.
"In the final analysis, the decision comes down to an application of one of the most important concepts in our law: reasonable doubt," Burke said.
In an emotional courtroom scene, King cried and reached for tissues as Burke read his eight-page verdict. The judge's voice cracked as he read the final sentences.
King raised his fists in the air. His wife and three surviving children were among a couple dozen family members present.
Outside the courtroom and surrounded by reporters, King was asked what he has been going through. He softly said, "Can I say it on TV? Hell. ... I raise my kids as best I can, and the media play it like I'm something like a gangster. ... I'm not a bad person."
Last August, King's dog Face was tied up in the basement of his Minneapolis home when Zack Jr. went down to play with him. The dog seized the boy's neck, breaking it, crushing his larynx and severing a key artery. He died of asphyxiation. His father was upstairs sleeping at the time.
Freeman would do it again
In the high-profile case, the prosecution drew much attention, in part, because fatal dog bites are unusual, and also because Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman stepped in to try the case alongside Assistant County Attorney Amy Sweasy.
Freeman rarely appears in court; in his other recent appearance, he unsuccessfully asked the state Supreme Court last year to remove a judge from the Myon Burrell case.
But Freeman said Friday that if he had it to do over, he would put King on trial again.
Talking by phone from a convention in Savannah, Ga., Freeman noted the dog's seven prior bites.
"We're not trying to be mean or vindictive. It's just, people have got to be responsible," he said. He noted that the dog was kept on a 3-foot leash for hours without food or water and in his feces. "That's not what you do to a dog," Freeman said.
He said the four children had the run of the house along with another pit bull and five puppies. "Vicious dogs treated inhumanely and children do not mix," he said.
Defense lawyer Craig Cascarano said Freeman's office was misguided in going after King. He repeated what he said in court: that the family is to be admired, they take good care of their children and send them to parochial school.
Cascarano said if anybody is at fault, it is Animal Control, which had every opportunity to tag the dog as dangerous and euthanize him.
Burt Osborne, director of regulatory services for Minneapolis, called it ludicrous that Animal Control is culpable.
"That guy is 100 percent responsible for the death of his child, and if he is not criminally responsible, he is responsible," Osborne said. "We could not have stopped him from chaining up the dog for 17 hours sitting in its own waste."
City Council President Barbara Johnson, who represents part of north Minneapolis, called the decision discouraging. "Parents have a responsibility for the safety of their household," she said.
In response to this case and two other dog attacks last spring, the Minneapolis City Council toughened its regulation of dangerous dogs.
Blame for Animal Control
The judge said King is "profoundly distraught" by his son's death, but sympathy had no place in the decision.
Burke said Animal Control knew of the dog's previous bites, but no attempt was made to classify it as dangerous or potentially dangerous.
Given the family had four children, it would have been reasonable to kill Face after he bit Zack Jr. and a contractor next door in the summer of 2006 and another woman in December 2006, Burke wrote.
He noted, however, that an animal behaviorist testified that most pet owners find it impossible to kill a pet.
King said he will never own a dog again. Of his case, he said, "It's not really a lesson because it was an accident, a tragic accident."
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747