An emotion-filled trial ended with a Lithonia woman sentenced to 16 months in jail for a pit bull attack in which a little girl lost part of an arm.
“It’s moments like these that I wish I had the wisdom of Solomon,” said State Court Judge Dax Lopez on Jan. 6, before sentencing Twyann Vaughn, the owner of the dogs. Vaughn was convicted on two counts each of reckless conduct, violation of the vicious dog act and violation of the rabies ordinance.
Vaughn was sentenced to 16 months in jail, three years of probation, 240 hours of community service and restitution. Vaughn has been ordered to become an advocate for better animal control after release.
“Ms. Vaughn, I do not believe you are a bad person,” Lopez said. “You acted in reckless disregard of what should have been a very apparent and unjustifiable mistake.”
The victim, Erin Ingram, a Rock Chapel Elementary School student who was 8 years old at the time, was attacked by the two pit bulls while playing in her neighborhood on March 9, 2010.
According to a police report, several witnesses unsuccessfully tried to pull the dogs away from the girl, before a DeKalb County Police officer arrived. The officer shot one of the dogs in the head when it jumped toward the officer. The other dog, which ran away, was later found and euthanized.
“These two dogs ran freely and unsupervised in this neighborhood on a frequent basis,” Lopez said. “The consequence of these actions was absolutely devastating. It was devastating to a little girl who is probably one of the most courageous little girls I have ever met. It was devastating to her family.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is absolutely avoidable,” Lopez said.
During a tearful statement to the judge asking for leniency, Vaughn said she could never forget the effects of the dog attack.
“It’s with me. I haven’t forgotten about it at all,” Vaughn said. “I wish I could give her a hug and tell her I’m sorry.
“I’m very, very sorry that this happened,” Vaughn said. “My heart goes out to Erin every day. I think about [the family] every single day. I think about it all day long.”
Vaughn said she did not want to wait for a pending lawsuit from the family to begin to pay the victim’s medical bills which have topped $100,000, with at least one more surgery pending.
“I’ll pay whatever I have to pay,” Vaughn said. “I have no problem with that.”
Vaughn asked the judge not to send her to jail: “I’m a mom, too. If I go to jail, who’s going to be there for my son? I have no family here.”
In his closing argument, Gerald Griggs, Vaughn’s attorney said, “This is not a criminal case. This is a civil case and it should take place in a civil arena.”
Griggs told the jury that only two of the 24 witnesses testified that the dogs were vicious.
“Children played all the time in that neighborhood,” Griggs said. “There were no incidents with those dogs. How was a person supposed to know that their dogs were doing anything?”
Griggs reiterated that the attack was the result of “a bad decision.”
“It has been filled with emotion,” Griggs said. “This was an unfortunate accident.”
During the trial which lasted four days, DeKalb Solicitor General Sherry Boston portrayed Vaughn as a negligent dog owner.
“An accident didn’t happen on March 9, 2010,” Boston said. “A vicious dog attack that was avoidable happened on March 9, 2010,” Boston said. “It could have been avoided if the defendant had done what any reasonable person would have done that owns these types of animals.”
The trial was about “whether the defendant did what she was supposed to do to prevent what we all know could happen and did happen to Erin in this case,” Boston told the jury in her closing argument.
Several friends and family of the young victim left the courtroom sobbing as Boston, over the objection of Vaughn’s defense attorney, played a 911 recording—for the second time in the trial–during her closing argument.
On the 911 recording, Lisa Vinings, who has a rental home in the victim’s neighborhood, could be heard saying, “Two pit bulls are eating a child in the middle of the street.
“She’s just laying there,” Vinings told the 911 operator. “She’s bleeding all over the place. Oh, my God. They have chewed her up. I’ve never seen nothing like this in my life.”
Several neighbors of the two families testified that they would not go outside without a shovel, hoe, baseball bat or a 9 mm gun, Boston said.
Teresa Flink, a neighbor of the victim, said, “I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to chase [the dogs] out of my yard. They would wake up the neighborhood by running through the neighborhood unattended. It was daily.” Boston said that was a “bad decision [that] turned into the worst day of Erin’s life. That bad decision cost Erin her arm.”