Although the latest appeal by the owner of a long-incarcerated Staffordshire bull terrier was denied Tuesday, there may yet be hope for his release.
Nine-year-old Niko 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.
The long legal battle to prevent Niko from being killed under a court order, rehome him or return him to his owners has seen multiple appeals since 2015, with the latest being largely denied by the Virginia Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
The legal saga kicked off in 2015, when Niko’s owner, Toni Stacy, was convicted of being the owner of a dog that killed a cat. On Aug. 6, 2015, Stacy was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 90 days suspended on the condition that Niko be euthanized.
She did not comply with the order that the dog be killed.
The state appeals court had granted an appeal hearing following a May 2021 decision from an Albemarle County Circuit Court judge.
Representing Niko’s owner, attorney Elliott Harding argued the case to a panel of state appeals court judges earlier this month. Harding argued that because Stacy’s conviction was a Class 2 misdemeanor six years ago, the court no longer has jurisdiction to revoke her suspended sentence for failure to comply with the conditions of suspension.
In an unpublished opinion Tuesday, Judge Junius P. Fulton wrote that he found this argument unpersuasive.
“Stacy’s arguments are yet another attempt to bite at the same apple that has been litigated over and over again. On multiple occasions after her sentence, the trial court entered orders concerning the disposal/euthanization of Niko pursuant to [state code],” he wrote.
“Each time the trial court entered an order, Stacy appealed. The effect of Stacey’s latest appeal is to challenge the trial court’s ability to order what it has ordered multiple times before, the disposal/euthanization of Niko,” the judge wrote.
However, Fulton clarified that the May 21, 2021 Albemarle County Circuit Court order under scrutiny in the latest appeal instructed “disposal” rather than death for the dog.
“This request for ‘disposal’ rather than euthanization of Niko was made by Stacy in a May 2019 motion to the trial court where she relied upon [the state code],” he wrote. “And, the trial court’s May 21, 2021 order has the effect of granting Stacy the very relief she requested — ‘disposal’ rather than euthanasia of Niko.”
According to Harding, it isn’t immediately clear what this means. He said he is in communication with local animal control and is hopeful they’ll release Niko now that a judge has ruled euthanasia isn’t required.
“Whether he can return to [his owners] remains unseen, but there’s definitely an opportunity for him to have another chance,” Harding said.
In years past Harding and Stacy have advocated for alternatives to euthanasia, such as transferring Niko to another owner or re-homing and rehabilitating him in a different state. Now, with Fulton’s clarification about the meaning of the word “disposal,” it appears those options may again be on the table.
“I know [Court of Appeals of Virginia] opinion comes out as a loss, but the court’s reliance on the language of disposal clarifies that his fate isn’t a foregone conclusion, which is what we’ve hoped for all along,” Harding said. “We know there are some willing and qualified alternatives for him.”
Niko remains at the local SPCA, where he is allowed routine visits from his owners, who are permitted to play with him. Wells and Stacy regularly post updates and videos of Niko via a Facebook group with more than 10,000 members who routinely send encouraging messages of support to the imprisoned pooch.