National Zoo employee found guilty of attempted animal cruelty

When Michael Vick was facing animal cruelty charges four years ago, the star quarterback called on local defense lawyer Billy Martin for help.

When a National Zoo employee was charged with trying to poison stray cats around her Northwest Washington apartment complex this year, she, too, turned to the powerhouse lawyer. Neither case ended with the defendant’s acquittal.

Vick famously pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2007. And on Monday, after two days of testimony from dozens of witnesses last week, a D.C Superior Court judge found Nico Dauphine guilty of attempted cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor. She faces a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine and is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 21.

Martin had argued that although security cameras captured Dauphine, 38, hovering over a bowl of cat food sitting outside the Park Square apartments March 2, she was simply removing the food to keep strays from congregating.

But prosecutors said the 40-second video showed Dauphine removing a plastic bag from her purse, reaching into the bag and dumping poison onto the food. A neighbor reported the incident, and no cats ate poisoned food.

The poison, Martin insisted, was not left by his client.

“Someone else could have leaned in, outside of the camera, and put the poison in it,” Martin argued.

Martin called Dauphine to the stand. Dauphine said she received a doctorate from the University of Georgia and was currently working at the National Zoo, where she is studying how domestic cats affect wildlife. The National Zoo’s Web site lists her as a postdoctoral fellow with the Migratory Bird Center.

“I’ve always loved animals, ever since childhood,” Dauphine said. “We always had pets when I was growing up.”

Dauphine repeatedly denied throwing rat poison on the food. “I would never do anything like that,” she said.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Chambers said Dauphine — who, he said, had complained to building managers about neighbors feeding the cats — tried to kill the felines because she thought they were harming the environment, specifically birds.

During his cross-examination of Dauphine, Chambers introduced several of her published writings in which she allegedly wrote about the “outrage” of the “slaughter” of wildlife caused by cats.

Chambers also introduced a letter she wrote, published in the New York Times in 2007, in which she wrote about the “war between cats and birds” and that the “slaughter” was “one-sided.”

Dauphine refuted the examples, saying her writings were misconstrued by the editors.

When he announced his verdict Monday, Senior Judge Truman A. Morrison III said it was the video, along with Dauphine’s testimony, that led him to believe she had “motive and opportunity.”

He specifically pointed to her repeated denials of her writings.

“Her inability and unwillingness to own up to her own professional writings as her own undermined her credibility,” Morrison said.

Morrison said he reviewed the tape and Dauphine’s testimony to see whether her case could stand on its own two legs. “Or, in this case, four legs,” he said.

Martin declined to comment after the trial.

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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