Photographs by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Scruffy the cat, whose whiskers and eyebrows were singed in a 2008 attack that burned the rest of his body so badly that he had to be euthanized.
Scruffy’s DNA was harvested in 2008 from a sample of burnt tissue found in the Brooklyn apartment where teenagers doused him with lighter fluid and set him aflame. Madea’s was found on the plastic guard of the umbrella that her owner’s son-in-law used to fatally club her in 2009.
This month, the two cats won a sort of high-tech posthumous justice, when their abusers were convicted in animal-cruelty cases built on a foundation of evidence from the victims themselves.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it was the first time animal DNA had been used to win cruelty convictions in New York City. And the convictions, returned on March 8 in separate trials, are two of only a handful that have been won in the country, experts said, though the existence of DNA evidence has encouraged many defendants to plead guilty.
Some 35 years after human DNA was first used in criminal cases, the collection of animal DNA is “becoming more and more common as law enforcement officials are thinking about using the genetic tools they have at their disposal in lesser crimes,” said Scott Heiser, criminal justice program director at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in California. Last year, scientists created the country’s first DNA database of dogs used in dog fights to help investigators establish ties among breeders, owners and the animals themselves.
Scruffy, a 1-year-old tabby also known as Tommy Two Times, was picked up in October 2008 after a building superintendent in Crown Heights who fed him regularly found him with much of his fur and skin burned off.
“It was just a badly burned cat, with the burns extending into the muscle of the legs,” said Robert Reisman, medical coordinator of animal cruelty cases at the society’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. Scruffy was euthanized soon after. The case came together slowly. Investigators found burn marks and what looked like burnt tissue in a vacant room in the super’s building. They sent a piece of the flooring to the veterinary genetics lab at the University of California at Davis, which confirmed the presence of cat tissue. When the investigators sent a tissue sample from Scruffy’s body to the lab, it came back a match.
Meanwhile, two teenagers, Angelo Monderoy and Matthew Cooper, were linked to the attack and told the authorities that they had taken a cat to the same vacant apartment, where one stepped on him and the other doused him with lighter fluid. The DNA evidence, said Carol Moran, a deputy district attorney, “connected that cat to the cat that was euthanized — so that when the vet comes in and testifies about the extent of the injuries, the gruesome nature of the way the flame was applied, the extraordinary way the cat suffered — this is the cat.”
Mr. Cooper pleaded guilty, but Mr. Monderoy, 20, opted for trial. On March 8, he was convicted of aggravated animal cruelty as well as burglary and arson. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
In the other case, a man named Lordtyshon Garrett was accused of beating his mother-in-law’s 4-year-old cat, Madea, whose lungs were so badly lacerated that she had to be put to sleep. It was days after the beating was reported that an investigator noticed an umbrella encased in a hard-plastic sheath in a search of the apartment in Greenpoint.
“The umbrella guard was pristine except for the end, where it had punctures and scratches that were very much what we would expect from a cat who had bitten it,” Dr. Reisman said. Dried cat saliva on the end of the umbrella guard yielded enough DNA to match a tissue sample from Madea’s body.
A family member said that Mr. Garrett had admitted, “I got him, but good,” Ms. Moran, the deputy district attorney, said. “But what does that mean? It may mean I was rude to him. The DNA helped us define what the words meant.” Mr. Garrett, 33, was found guilty of aggravated cruelty and criminal mischief.
The A.S.P.C.A. has collected DNA in six other cruelty investigations, Dr. Reisman said. Two of the cases did not go forward; two ended in pleas; and the other two are pending.
Beth Wictum, director of the California lab that the A.S.P.C.A. used in both cases, one of only two such labs in the country, said she had testified at a few other animal-cruelty trials, including ones in North Carolina and Georgia where the blood and hair, respectively, of burned dogs were found on suspect’s clothing, and one in a California case where a man killed his girlfriend’s dog; plus several trials related to dog fighting.
“Usually they end up pleading,” she said, “because their lawyers know what would happen if they brought that kind of cruelty in front of a jury.”