Judge Burke erred in dog-murder case

by Jim Longworth

Judge Todd Burke is the youngest man ever elected to the Superior Court bench in North Carolina, and was once a rising star in the judicial world. But he fast gained a reputation for unorthodox sentencing. Take for instance the drunk driver who was convicted of manslaughter. Instead of putting her away, Burke ordered the woman to wear a sign which said she had killed someone while driving under the influence. It was the Scarlet Letter approach to justice. Two weeks ago, Burke’s quirky style of sentencing once again turned a blind eye to a voiceless victim, in what can only be described as a miscarriage of justice and an unforgiveable mistake. Angelenetta Gladden appeared before Burke to be judged for cruel treatment which led to the death of her pit bull, named Diamond. It was a no brainer case, especially now that Susie’s law makes animal cruelty a felony. Gladden’s crimes were first discovered by Forsyth County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Gainey, who had responded to a call from Gladden saying that her dog was dead. Upon his arrival at Gladden’s residence, Deputy Gainey found Diamond lying in a dog house with no roof, totally emaciated. Winston-Salem Journal columnist Scott Sexton reported that during the trial, Dr. Darrell Rector of the NC Department of Agriculture testified that the dog was “so malnourished and dehydrated that she had begun to digest the lining of her stomach and bone-marrow tissue.” Rector concluded that Diamond had died of starvation. Translation? Gladden had systematically and deliberately tortured her dog by not providing it with food, water or shelter over a long period of time. If that’s not malicious cruelty I don’t know what is. But instead of throwing the book at Gladden and throwing her in jail, Burke let her off with a slap on the wrist, and made a mockery of Susie’s Law. He gave Gladden a suspended sentence, waived all fines and fees, then ruled that she could not own another pet until she has performed 24 hours of community service at the Forsyth Humane Society. The sentencing error sparked outrage throughout the Triad. Sexton himself was bombarded by tweets and e-mails including these two comments: Keith Murphy wrote, “Here we go again with a judge who equates starving a dog to death with a littering violation,” and Glenna Williams wrote, “The judge should be ashamed of himself. Maybe he needs to be starved a little and see how it feels.” I, too, was outraged and disheartened by Burke’s ruling, and I began to wonder if his disregard for animal cruelty had ever extended to abuse of a human victim. It had. Several years ago the Greensboro News and Record printed a transcript of a trial in which a 22-year-old man and his friend had sex with a 12-year-old girl. Instead of taking the adult male to task for statutory rape, Burke made derogatory remarks about the minor victim, including references to her physical development and her purported sexual history. Said Burke, “She wasn’t a sexual assault victim but for her age.” Taken together, the rape case and the animal-cruelty case seem to speak volumes about Judge Burke, who apparently has little regard for victims, be they the two-legged or four-legged variety. It’s no wonder, then, that a January 2012 survey by the North Carolina Bar Association gave Burke the second lowest score among 168 active judges. Only Judge Linwood Foust of Charlotte scored lower among the 4,200 attorneys surveyed. The law may prevent Burke from reversing himself on Gladden, but he can certainly issue a letter of apology to the public and have it published in the newspapers which serve his district. In that letter, he should promise to begin applying animal-cruelty laws more appropriately, and to be more sensitive to all kinds of victims in the future. I know it sounds a bit naïve, but there is a precedent for such contrition among arbiters of justice, sort of. Last year a Major League baseball umpire admitted that he had made a wrong call which had cost the pitcher a perfect game. His apology was sincere and heartfelt, and was accepted by both the pitcher and his fans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not equating a blown call during a baseball game with a blown call in the courtroom. I’m simply calling on Judge Burke to admit the error of his ways, and pledge to do better. If that doesn’t work, maybe he can just wear a sign that says, “I blew it.” Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).