It’s not every day that a dog plays a pivotal role in a criminal case, but an Oregon man is free today after Lucy, an unusual-looking Labrador mix, was located.
In April of last year, Joshua Horner was convicted of sexually abusing a minor. He had already received a partial reprieve — the Oregon Appeals had reversed his conviction in August. It found that the defense had been denied the right to present certain evidence, which violated Horner’s constitutional rights. However, the appeals court ordered a new trial.
Meanwhile, Horner contacted the Oregon Innocence Project, which was founded in 2014 in order to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and to fight for legal reforms. The group agreed to take on the case.
Lucy became involved because of the complainant’s testimony at trial. After he allegedly molested her, the complainant said, Horner threatened to shoot her animals if she complained to the police. In fact, she said, Horner had shot and killed Lucy in front of her to make the point.
That allegation first arose at trial, so the defense had no opportunity to investigate. As volunteers from the Oregon Innocence Project discovered, however, Lucy was alive and well. She had been given away by her owner. The complainant could not have been telling the truth.
“She was drinking a bowl of water and sitting in shade underneath a porch. We played with her. Petted her. It was wonderful,” said one volunteer.
The Innocence Project contacted the local district attorney and, in an unusual move, he cooperated in Horner’s exoneration. He told the court that while he wasn’t certain Horner is innocent, he is no longer convinced that Horner is guilty. In other words, reasonable doubt clearly exists.
In an email, the DA said that exonerations like this one remind us that while the U.S. has “the best system of justice in the world it is not perfect. Mistakes will be made and we should be judged by how we respond to them.”
The court dismissed the charges and there will be no retrial.
The head of the Oregon Innocence Project, who was a federal public defender for 31 years, said the situation was highly unusual.
“To be able to establish that a person should not have been convicted, you need something objective,” he told reporters. “In most child sex abuse cases, there is no evidence. Finding Lucy alive showed the complainant lied under oath in her testimony.”
Regardless of the seriousness of the charges, every defendant deserves to be acquitted if there is reasonable doubt about their guilt. That’s what “innocent until proven guilty” requires.