Arlene Crane, wife of presidential Rep. Phillip M. Crane (R-ILL.), was acquitted yesterday of Fairfax County pet law charges brought after a family dog bit the 6-year-old son of the Cranes' McLean neighbor.
General District Court Judge Martin E. Morris, who joked that we've chewed on this long enough," ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that Crane "was the real owner or custodian of the dog," a mixed black Labrador named "Sam."
The dog belong to the Cranes' 19-year-old daughter, according to court testimony.
Crane, who did not testify during the two-hour, nonjury trial, was elated after her acquittal. "I've got the greatest lawyers in the world," she said, hugging several family members and blowing kisses to departing courtroom spectators. "I told people I was going all the way with this." Her husband did not attend the trail.
Crane, if convicted, could have received a six-month jail term and a $500 fine for failure to detain a biting dog, and the absence of valid rabies tags and a dog license.
Robert Schmitt, president of the National Cable Television Association in Washington and father of the boy who was bitten, declined to comment as he left the courthouse. "I still have to live in the neighborhood, too," he said.
Yesterday's acquittal capped what had become a neighborhood cause celebre marked by heated words between Crane and Fairfax officials. Crane was represented at the trial by two attorneys, leading one spectator to remark, "You'd think this was the Manson murder trial."
The incident occurred Oct. 27 when Christian Schmitt was bitten on the hand by the Labrador outside the Schmitt's home at 7641 Burford Dr. On the following day, Fairfax County's Deputy Chief Animal Warden Russell Curtis gained a warrant for Crane's arrest after she refused to have the dog confined at a county pound for a mandatory rabies observation.
Crane was "uncooperative" during the incident, according to Fairfax County spokesman Edmund Castillo, and allegedly told the young Schmitt's sister that "if the dog has rabies he got them from you."
At one point yesterday, Schmitt's father brusquely pulled his sobbing son into the courtroom during a recess, walked up to Crane at the defense table and said, "My son thinks you've been giving him dirty looks.'
Crane emphatically denied that she had even seen Schmitt, who had been asked to remain outside the courtroom as a possible witness. Crane then shouted across the recessed courtroom to a friend, "Did you see that? . . . do you believe he just did that?"
Crane's defense was supplied by Robert Sparks, a McLean attorney, and Robert French, an Alabama-based lawyer who flew to Fairfax County on Monday night. French argued that the incident was "purely a mistake in human relations, pitting an overzealous officer against a mother when a family member is about to be taken away."
The Crane residence at 7624 Burford Dr. was visited by Warden Karen Deskins on the day of the incident, but Deskins testified that neither Philip nor Arlene Crane was home at the time. The case was passed to the next day's shift, she said.
Chief Warden Curtis testified that the next day Crane "would not allow the dog to be removed, and when I told her I would have to get a warrant, because county laws say the dog must be observed for rabies for 10 days, she said 'Go ahead and get the warrant.'"
French then brought the Cranes' 19-year-old daughter, Catherine, to the stand. She testified that the dog was hers and that she was responsible for it. When asked by French why she did not tell Curtis that fact , Catherine said she was "scared to tell him."
She testified that her mother, dressed in pajamas at the time, and Curtis were in a heated argument, and said, "I was alarmed by it. I was afraid of the tone of his voice.I was afraid to speak up." She added that Crane "never raised her voice with Curtis.
Deputy Fairfax prosecutor Steven Merril, who argued that Crane had violated "a serious health statute, that of rabies" with her refusal to have the dog committed, argued that Crane "took it upon herself to refuse to allow the dog to be taken."
"This case has obviously became a 'cause celebre" because of [crane's] husband, but a warden shouldn't have to obtain an arrest warrent to get a dog confined," Merril said.
French in turn argued that Deskins and a police officer had told Crane that she could take the dog to the veterinarian of her choice on Monday, two days after the dog bite, but Deskins in her testimony denied making the statement.
In November, a second dog belonging to the Cranes, described as a "playful puppy," bit a 15-year old McLean boy on the right hand. The Cranes surrendered that dog without incident, according to county spokesman Castillo.