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McConnell receives probation

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CHATTANOOGA -- A former trainer received three years' probation and a $75,000 fine Tuesday for soring Tennessee walking horses.

"So this is the man I've been reading so much about," U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice said as Jackie McConnell, 62, stood before him.

McConnell and three others were indicted in March, but an undercover video made by the Humane Society of the United States and aired by ABC's Nightline in May brought the issue to a worldwide audience.

Light punishment

Defendants Joseph Abernathy and Jeff Dockery were swiftly given sentences of a year's probation -- no fines were levied -- and ordered to write an article about soring.

McConnell could have faced a maximum fine of $250,000, as well as five years in prison for the conspiracy charge, before the plea bargain was reached.

Mattice, in proceedings that lasted over two hours, repeatedly asked the prosecutors and defense why he should accept the plea agreement.

"I find myself in sharp disagreement," Mattice said. "Why should I have my hands tied?"

Plea accepted

But, following a short recess, Mattice said he would accept the plea agreement, saying that it was his job to make a legal, not a moral judgement.

"I wear black robes, not white robes," Mattice said, also pointing out that McConnell has already been banned for life by the walking horse industry.

Mattice said he had received hundreds of letters about the case, and noted that the plea agreement was "unusual."

Prosecutors had previously recommended a sentence of five years' probation for conspiring to violate the Horse Protection Act (HPA), as well as the lifetime ban.

No jail time was recommended, but Mattice said he has sent men much older than McConnell to prison for longer terms, also noting that the 42-year-old HPA has only recently been enforced.

State's view

Federal prosecutor Steven Neff said that after McConnell was indicted and the video aired, the Walking Horse industry "circled the wagons." Neff also charged that trainers and owners have been protective and secretive about their methods.

McConnell still sored horses despite numerous suspensions, Neff said, adding that "federal oversight has failed."

The trainer violated the HPA "for decades" and it never deterred him, but a large fine will, Neff said.

Neff said that the public has been well educated about the issue of horse soring and that a bill currently before Congress, if passed, would add teeth to current law.

The prosecutor also said they hope to deter other horse trainers allegedly making their living "by violating federal law," adding that McConnell disregarded it for 30 years.

Much attention

Mattice said that an "unenforced law lowers the public's respect for it."

There has been "an extraordinary amount of media attention" about the case, Mattice said, adding that the court of public opinion is "sometimes more powerful than the court of law."

"How much more media can you get," Mattice said, adding that a picture (referring to the video) is worth a thousand words.

Defense's side

McConnell's defense attorney Tom Greenholtz told Mattice that his client has no job or income due to the lifetime ban placed on him last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adding that the plea agreement was "appropriate."

However, Mattice said that "people think that he's getting off light," saying that McConnell is "the big fish" because the HSUS targeted him and secretly taped him abusing the horses.

Greenholtz said that McConnell "wasn't the worst man in the world" and McConnell said he takes responsibility for what he has done, apologizing to his friends and family.

Ultimately, Mattice, who was required to either accept or reject the plea deal as written, accepted the plea agreement. If he had rejected it, McConnell could have withdrawn his plea deal, negotiated a new deal or gone on to trial. In most federal cases, a judge has some flexibility to sentence defendants within defined ranges.

The sentencing hearing was well attended by members of the media, McConnell's family and his supporters, and sitting in the front row was former Senator Joseph Tydings, who wrote the HPA 42 years ago.

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