New Jersey veterinarian acquitted of cruelty conviction

Superior court judge challenges reliability of PETA witness
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Saying that the prosecution's main witness was biased and not credible, a New Jersey Superior Court judge in April acquitted a veterinarian convicted last year by a lower court of 14 counts of animal cruelty in a widely publicized trial.

The case against Dr. Howard J. Baker was based solely on the testimony of Michele Rokke, an investigator with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and three highly edited minutes of a secretly recorded videotape showing Dr. Baker slapping a Dalmatian after the dog tried to bite him.

Last June, a municipal court judge convicted Dr. Baker of striking the dog and other abuses, sentenced him to 90 days of community service and classes in anger management, and fined him $3,500 (see JAVMA, Oct 1, 1999, page 918).

The New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners subsequently revoked Dr. Baker's license and barred him from going to his clinic, the Village Veterinary Hospital in East Brunswick. Since his acquittal, the board has reinstated Dr. Baker's license, and he has resumed practicing veterinary medicine.

Dr. Baker told JAVMA News he was "shocked" by the municipal court's verdict, saying he was certain the evidence did not support conviction. He believes the media is partly responsible for influencing the outcome of the trial. The story made headlines across the country while the PETA videotape aired on major networks and their local affiliates, and shows such as "Sally Jesse Rafael" and "Montel Williams."

Although Dr. Baker does not blame anyone for his ordeal, he is disappointed about the general rush to judgment, not only from the public but also from his profession. This was a situation that could have adversely affected the way veterinarians practice, he explained, and they should have had the "courage" to examine the case for themselves.

"In any other profession or organized group, whether it be accountants, policemen, firemen, mailmen, physicians, they all band together," Dr. Baker observed.

During the 10-month trial, Dr. Baker and his wife, Jacqueline, received death threats; Jacqueline was eventually fired from her marketing job because of the time she was taking off to attend court, meet with lawyers, and cope with stress-related illness.

Craig Caggiano, one of Dr. Baker's lawyers, said, "[Dr. Baker] feels abandoned by veterinarians across the country, none of whom rallied to his support, and he thought they would, quite frankly."

When the case was tried anew in state superior court, allowed by New Jersey state law for cases tried in courts with limited jurisdiction, the judge found a number of problems with the lower court's ruling.

In her 15-page decision, issued April 14, Judge Joyce Munkacsi questioned Rokke's sincerity and credibility because of Rokke's career as an animal rights activist and her admission to seeing animal abuse where others may not. Rokke's lack of training in veterinary medicine further compromised her testimony, Munkacsi added.

"I cannot find that Michelle Rokae [sic] is a credible witness such as to be the reed on which the State has built this case," she said.

Also at issue is whether Dr. Baker used justifiable discipline - Munkacsi believed this to be the case — or intentionally inflicted needless pain and suffering on the animals. "In this case ... no harm was ever proved," she ruled.

"Certainly, there is never an excuse for inhumane treatment of animals in an ethical society, but we should never become so committed to a point of view that we overlook reason and what is necessary and, therefore, justifiable. That was done in this case," Munkacsi said.

When Dr. Baker hired Rokke in June 1996 as an assistant at his clinic, she was on a mission for PETA to secure employment and infiltrate Huntington Life Sciences Inc, a New Jersey medical laboratory, to search for evidence that the laboratory animals were being abused.

Court papers show that Rokke testified to having carried out several similar covert operations for PETA, yet she never disclosed her ties with the animal rights group to Dr. Baker while in his employment.

Two days after starting at the clinic, Rokke witnessed the first of several incidents that she perceived to be Dr. Baker tormenting and abusing his patients. She concealed a videocamera in her bag and filmed nearly 200 hours of Dr. Baker treating approximately 2,000 animals.

In June 1997, less than two months after she left Dr. Baker's practice, Rokke filed 16 complaints against the veterinarian with the Middlesex County, NJ, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Munkacsi questioned Rokke's lack of urgency, however. "If one truly believed that animals were being tortured, tormented, and cruelly beaten, why wait one year to complain?"

As for the videotape, only 20 minutes of the entire 200 hours were recovered — the remainder was either recorded over or could not be located by PETA. The three-minute portion played in court was a compilation of three scenes of Dr. Baker and Rokke with the Dalmatian in the clinic's radiographic facilities.

Rokke admitted that PETA omitted parts it did not consider relevant, such as Dr. Baker speaking kindly to the dog and petting it just before it lunged at him. It is clear, according to Munkacsi, who viewed the entire 20-minute tape several times, that Dr. Baker was "shocked" by the behavior of a dog he has treated since it was a puppy.

Munkacsi also observed that PETA gave the edited tape to the news media during the trial, and Rokke gave several televised interviews.

The superior court's decision cannot be appealed, according to Caggiano.

Now that he has been exonerated, Dr. Baker is trying to put his life back together, but he expects it will be some time before he and his family get over the public humiliation and his practice can recover financially.

Dr. Baker encouraged practitioners to be careful who they hire and, especially, how they conduct themselves in their practices; a disgruntled employee, he said, could easily make frivolous or unsubstantiated accusations, with devastating consequences. "This [was] an unfortunate situation, and it could have happened to any veterinarian."