BRICK – The township couple that admitted to abusing a 17-year-old dog named Sammy was sentenced to six months in jail on Monday.
Brick residents Keith Morgan, 56, and Shauna Ewing Morgan, 43, stood in silence next to each other and between their respective attorneys while the sentence was read. The sentence also included a $1,000 fine, $13,500 in restitution, 30 days community service and the couple is prohibited from future ownership of an animal.
“This is what we wanted, this is what was deserved and it was justified,” Monmouth County SPCA Chief Victor “Buddy” Amato said. “This judge did the right thing.”
A packed courtroom erupted in cheers when Judge Robert LePore announced jail time for the couple.
“Unless these individuals are imprisoned for their depraved, cruel and heinous conduct, such acts of animal cruelty will continue worldwide,” LePore said. “The lack of care provided to Sammy was inexcusable.”
LePore said the sentence he issued was to deter future animal cruelty.
“This court believes that a message needs to be sent not just to these defendants, but to all of society that animal cruelty is a national and global problem and must be addressed and deterred,” LePore said.
The charges stem from a March incident when Keith Morgan brought the Cocker Spaniel to the Associated Humane Society in Tinton Falls, claiming he found Sammy in a garbage bag on the side of the road, Amato said.
Keith Morgan gave an interview to a local television station after he turned the dog in, claiming he found the dog. That interview was played in court during the sentencing.
However, officials said they later learned that the couple had owned the dog for at least nine years.
Sammy was then brought to the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital for treatment because he was malnourished and his fur was covered in urine and matted together in knots to the extent that the dog could not stand up, Amato said. He was released to a foster family in April.
Days after Sammy was turned in, authorities learned through an anonymous tip that the Morgans had a second dog, named Ady, at their home.
Amato said that because Ady had been groomed before they found her, authorities they were unable to determine if she was neglected. The 3-year-old Cocker Spaniel was voluntarily surrendered to the SPCA and eventually placed in a new home.
Before LePore issued the sentencing, both of the Morgans made a statement to the judge, apologizing.
“I was in a bad time in my life. I was depressed … because my wife left,” Keith Morgan said. “I apologize, I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
He and his attorney Kevin Sheehy told the judge that Shauna Morgan wasn’t at the home for several months before the incident because the two were separated. Keith Morgan had also been diagnosed with a kidney disease and at one point was suicidal, Sheehy said.
Shauna Morgan’s attorney, Marc Schram, told the judge the couple did not have any contact during their separation, and found the conditions at the home when she returned.
“I should have foreseen that Sammy wouldn’t have been safe with my husband, but I didn’t know he was going to get so sick. … If I had foreseen it I would have taken Sammy with me,” she said through tears. “I’m sorry it turned out the way it did.”
Shauna also thanked the family that adopted Sammy, who Amato later said was present in the courtroom. However, he would not identify who they were.
Attorney Steven Zabarsky prosecuted the case and he said he was happy with the outcome.
“On behalf of the state, I’m very satisfied,” Zarbarsky said.
Sammy’s case garnered international attention and a Facebook page was created in support of the dog. An online petition calling on prosecutors to ask for the maximum sentence for the Brick couple received nearly 33,000 signatures.
The Morgans were arraigned on May 20, with more than 250 people packing the Brick municipal courtroom to watch. A line stretched out the door of the courthouse with supporters wearing t-shirts and holding signs demanding justice.
During a July 15 hearing, which also drew approximately 150 Sammy supporters, a Staten Island, N.Y. woman yelled out “Go kill yourself” and was escorted out of the courtroom.
Ultimately the Morgans reached a plea agreement on Aug. 19, and Amato called the outcome a “win.” Keith Morgan pleaded guilty to one count of abuse of animal cruelty and filing a false report with law enforcement, while Shauna Ewing Morgan admitted to two counts of animal cruelty.
The eight-month case also stirred debates surrounding animal abuse. In May, N.J. 101.5 radio hosts Dennis Malloy, Judi Franco and Ray Rossi were under fire after they brought the case up on their respective shows.
Social media posts claimed Malloy and Franco said animal rights activists needed to get their priorities straight, while Rossi allegedly said “untrue” and “hurtful” statements on air about one of the administrators of the Sammy the Cocker Spaniel Facebook page.
New Jersey 101.5, however, released a statement saying the online commentary were “dislocated from the facts.”
After the Morgans admitted to the animal cruelty charges Sammy was formally adopted by his foster family, who has at least four Cocker Spaniels living at the home.
Capt. Richard Yocum, who is president of the state SPCA, said he was proud of Detective William Hyer and Deputy Chief Larry Donato, who investigated the case and of the ruling that was made.
“The stand that they [the court] have taken against animal cruelty being unacceptable tonight was admirable,” Yocum said. “Sammy does have a loving home, he’s doing much, much better and he’s living out his life in a very good place.”
After the sentence, both of the Morgans’ attorneys said they would be filing an appeal Tuesday morning. The judge granted a motion for a stay to allow the Morgans to remain free for the appeal process.
Several police officers escorted the Morgans out of the courtroom, while the crowd was asked to remain until they left. Keith Morgan placed his hand on his wife’s back as they were lead out the door.