First person convicted under stricter animal cruelty laws gets no jail time

Jim Melwert
December 12, 2018 - 2:01 pm
Cecelia Johnson, 64, was convicted of aggravated cruelty to animals, a felony under a state law that is just over a year old.

Montgomery County District Attorney's Office

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NORRISTOWN, Pa. (KYW Newsradio) — A judge has ruled that a Norristown woman — the first person in Pennsylvania to be convicted under a new state law that increases penalties for cruelty to animals — will face no jail time.

Montgomery County Judge Risa Ferman found 64-year-old Cecelia Johnson guilty with no further penalty of felony cruelty to animals, and she is also prohibited from ever owning another dog.

Her dog, Cam, died in January after he was left outside in sub-zero temperatures

She didn’t argue the facts of her case, however, and was convicted of a third-degree felony in October.

But the defense noted Wednesday that Johnson’s adult daughter has Down syndrome and other medical issues — information that was not disclosed before. Her daughter was rushed to the hospital in what’s described as a near-death situation, and Johnson said in her panic, she forgot to let the dog in and then got stuck at the hospital as a winter storm moved in.

Her lawyer, Megan Schanbacher, read Johnson’s statement to the court, as Johnson was too emotional to speak. In that statement, Johnson said while at the hospital she wasn't thinking about anything other than what was right for her daughter, but she feels horrible because the dog was a part of the family and her daughter’s guardian, beloved companion and best friend.

She added that her daughter doesn't know what happened, nor does she understand what’s going on.

Schanbacher pointed out how Johnson has been the target of a fierce social media campaign, critical of her treatment of the dog.

"The last couple sentences (of the statement) where she says, 'This has been really scary. I've never felt hated before' — that’s a really terrifying feeling for somebody who’s never ever remotely felt something like that," said Schanbacher. "When you understand her home life and her daughter and just the daily stress that’s there, that’s really terrifying."

Announcing the sentence, the judge said there was no need for supervision or jail time, adding, "Any parent can appreciate the seriousness of the situation."

The felony-level animal cruelty law comes under what’s called Libre’s Law, enacted last year and named for a Boston terrier from Lancaster.