May 14, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
A Pennsylvania man has pled guilty to a misdemeanor wildlife cruelty offense for his role in a deer torture case made famous late last year when a video surfaced and went viral of a wounded deer being kicked repeatedly and abused in the northwestern part of the state.
Alexander Brock Smith, an 18-year-old from Brookeville, Pa., was initially charged with several felony offenses in early January along with an unidentified 17-year-old male. The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not identify minors charged with wildlife crimes.
The original charges against the pair came following a video that surfaced and went almost immediately viral on social media platforms. After being made aware of the video the same day it was taken, Pennsylvania Game Commission game wardens began an immediate investigation into the incident, which apparently started with an errant shot and concluded with the two men abusing the deer repeatedly in an effort to dispatch it.
After a several weeks long cooperative investigation between Pennsylvania Game Commission game wardens, the Pennsylvania State Police, local law enforcement officers, and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, charges were filed in early January.
Smith, who is the step-son of a local police chief, was initially charged with four felony counts and two misdemeanor counts that included aggravated cruelty to animals — torture, conspiracy to aggravated cruelty to animals — torture, and tampering with/fabricate physical evidence among other charges. Several of the charges carried potential penalties of up to seven years in jail along with fines of up to $15,000.
According to various news reports and a courts record search, Smith pled guilty to several lesser charges on May 6, 2020. Those include a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge and four summary charges.
The plea came after the other felony charges were either changed or received a judicial designation of Nolle Prossed from the court.
As a result, Smith has reportedly been fined $2,154, sentenced to 200 hours of community service, required to be available to speak to hunting safety groups, schools, and youth groups, and had his hunting license revoked for 15 years.
While there’s no apparent disposition just yet for the minor also charged in the case, the court proceedings stemmed from the investigation into a video made during the Nov. 30, 2019 incident. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s initial news release on the case, the agency launched an investigation immediately when a viewer of the Snapchat video shared it to the PGC’s Facebook page.
According to the agency, each defendant was interviewed and admitted they were hunting on Smith’s family property on Nov. 30. The juvenile reportedly shot and wounded a buck, then shot and missed on a follow up attempt. With no other ammunition to dispatch the wounded buck, upon exiting the stand, the pair went to the immobilized deer, took video of repeated kicking and abuse that included the alleged ripping off of one of the buck’s antlers, and took video of the incident, which was later shared to the social media platform Snapchat.
Game Commission officers reportedly seized the phone of both defendants, including the one that the video was saved to and conducted forensic analysis. After that analysis, statements from both defendants, and the rest of the investigation, charges were filed earlier this year.
Public outcry and outrage were almost immediate after the video surfaced, from non-hunters and hunters alike, both sides appalled by the actions shown in the video.
“Hunters care deeply about wildlife,” said Game Commission executive director Bryan Burhans, in the news release about felony charges being filed. “It’s through their decades of dedication to the outdoors that we enjoy healthy and sustainable populations of wild birds and mammals, and that those wildlife species that encounter trouble are identified and afforded additional protection.”
Burhans also noted that the incident was hardly the result of two responsible hunters out for a day in the field.
“Hunters are taught at an early age to hunt ethically, to be respectful of the game they hunt, the property which they hunt and other hunters,” he said. “The Game Commision’s Hunter-Trapper Education program emphasizes these longstanding principles to new hunters.”
With the outcome determined for one of the defendants, the question has been raised by some observers as to whether or not the punishment fit the crimes. According to a published report by Alexander Nelson of The Courier Express, Jefferson County District Attorney Jeff Burkett thinks so.
“There was certainly a huge outcry from certain segments of the public on this case,” Burkett is quoted as saying in the newspaper story. “This was because it was captured on video and everyone could see the crimes being committed. Certainly, these videos were repulsive and no decent person could ever condone what was depicted in them. Notwithstanding the public outcry, we are bound by law, facts and the sentencing guidelines. After numerous consultations with the officers from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, county detectives, and other law enforcement officers and the Western District United States Attorney’s Office, we were convinced that the misdemeanor cruelty to animals charge was the one that fit the facts of the case. The sentencing guidelines for that charge call for a probationary sentence. Also, we obtained an extensive revocation of Smith’s hunting privileges until well into his 30s.”
Brian Lynn, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Sportsmen’s Alliance, said that in light of what Smith was originally charged with, the sentencing was far less than what could have taken place.
“Looking at the charges that were leveled against him, with four felonies being dropped down, that’s pretty light,” he said. “You can get into procedural stuff, the fact that he was 18, stuff like that, but in looking at the case as a whole, he got off pretty light.”
Lynn is also concerned that the case could be another flashpoint where millions of law abiding, ethical hunters in Pennsylvania and beyond get painted in a negative light by animal rights activists and groups.
“This is how the animal rights movement paints hunters all the time,” he said. “They use these types of cases as an example or as proof in mainstream media and on social media that hunting is cruel, that our actions are cruel, and they then use that to give their legislation legs in state capitols nationwide.
“None of that is true, as we all know, since hunters are the backbone of the North American Model of Conservation and it is the power of our dollars and sweat equity that support wildlife and wild places.”
In the end, viral cases like this often make the fight against animal rights activists and anti-hunting groups more difficult and often results in legislation that has been fueled by the viral nature of news stories like this.
“This is speculation, but I’d guess that we’ll see some politicians make knee-jerk, emotional responses to this,” said Lynn. “They’ll often try and make decisions that have no biological evidence to support them because that’s what tends to happen after cases like this.”