San Francisco, CA — A homeless man wrongly accused of punching, kicking and throwing his 8-lb Chihuahua against a wall has been cleared of wrongdoing following a jury trial, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated 40 minutes Tuesday afternoon before finding 57-year-old Morris Varian not guilty of one count of misdemeanor animal abuse. He faced a year in jail if convicted, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Abigail Rivamonte.
On Feb. 9, 2012, Varian was walking on Mission Street near Third Street carrying his belongings in an open plastic garbage bag. His 2-year-old Chihuahua, Aubrey, perched on top with her head sticking out of the bag. The pair had just moved out of Varian’s brother’s home in Sunnyvale, and it was the dog’s first time in San Francisco. Aubrey, unfamiliar with a bustling city atmosphere, suddenly jumped from the bag and ran into the street. A panicked Varian caught Aubrey, preventing her from being struck by traffic, and returned her to her perch.
Upon reaching the nearby Yerba Buena Gardens, however, Aubrey leapt from the bag a second time, nearly hitting a wall and falling to the ground. Varian grabbed Aubrey and disciplined her by lightly swatting the scruff of her neck two times.
As Varian attempted to return the dog to her spot in the bag, a nearby man snatched Aubrey from Varian and called police. The man, a 45-year-old restaurateur from Marin County, told responding officers that he saw Varian throw Aubrey against a wall, punch her in the head with a closed fist, slap her repeatedly and try to suffocate her in the plastic bag.
Varian was confused, telling police he loves Aubrey and would never hurt the dog. Aubrey was taken to a local veterinarian and Varian was taken to jail, where he spent 37 days.
The veterinarian who immediately examined Aubrey took the stand during the three day trial, testifying that she found absolutely no injuries that would be consistent with the attack described by the restaurateur. She testified that after examining the dog, she did not believe it had been abused at all. She found no signs of swelling, bruising, broken bones, fractures or any other injuries the she would expect to result from an 8-lb dog being beaten by a man.
Expert Dr. Benjamin Hart of UC Davis Veterinary School agreed with the local vet’s findings. Hart testified that video captured by a surveillance camera immediately following the incident does not show Aubrey behaving like a dog that was just abused. In the video, Aubrey appears friendly and active, happily soliciting attention from strangers. An abused dog, the expert testified, would be fearful and defensive.
A Yerba Buena security guard and another man both took the stand. The security guard testified that he did not see Aubrey being thrown against the wall, nor did he see Varian punch or slap the dog. The guard testified that he checked the footage from all the cameras around Yerba Buena and did not see any video of Varian abusing his dog.
The other witness also testified that he did not see Varian beating Aubrey or throwing her into a wall. He testified that he saw Varian put Aubrey in the plastic bag, but that the bag was open and her head was free.
Varian’s brother testified that Varian and Aubrey were inseparable and that Varian had never been violent with Aubrey or any other animal. Varian had also cared for his brother’s two dogs in the past, and had treated them gently.
Varian’s brother testified he tried to reclaim Aubrey from the shelter two weeks after the incident and was denied because the case was still open. When the family tried again after another month, they were told Aubrey had been adopted by the restaurateur who called police. On the stand, the restaurateur confirmed he adopted Aubrey.
“Mr. Varian lost his beloved pet and was thrown in jail simply because someone stereotyped him based on his appearance,” Rivamonte said. “He was homeless, and that plastic bag was his dog carrier. It was no different than carrying a dog in a purse. He was prosecuted based on a wild accusation with absolutely no evidence to support it.”
Adachi called the case “outrageous.”
“By all accounts, Mr. Varian doted on Aubrey and considered her part of his family,” Adachi said. “In an instant, he lost his dog and his freedom. While he cannot reclaim his dog, his public defender was able to clear his name.”