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Pit-bull attack conviction is upheld by Virginia appeals court
Woman whose pit bulls killed neighbor has involuntary manslaughter charge upheld


Date published: 10/31/2007

BY ELLEN BILTZ

The precedent-setting involuntary manslaughter conviction of a Spotsylvania County woman whose pit bulls killed a neighbor was upheld yesterday in the Virginia Court of Appeals.

Deanna Hilda Large, 39, was also convicted in the trial two years ago of two misdemeanor counts of allowing dogs to run at-large, but she did not appeal those.

Judges yesterday ruled against Large, saying her claims of insufficient evidence had no merit.

"She maintains the evidence failed to prove that she owned two of the dogs involved in the March 8, 2005 attack. We disagree," yesterday's Court of Appeals opinion read.

Large was arrested and tried after her pit bulls attacked 86-year-old Dorothy Sullivan and her pet Shih Tzu, Buttons.

Spotsylvania Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Neely said Sullivan's slaying marked the first felony punishment for recklessly allowing dangerous dogs to run at-large resulting in bodily injury to people.

Sullivan's death prompted the General Assembly to pass a bill last year allowing for this kind of felony charge to be used by prosecutors.

Sullivan's daughter, Doris Phelps, found Sullivan dead when she came to visit her mother. She was met by aggressive pit bulls.

After going into the house, Phelps looked out to see the dogs circle her mother's body near the edge of her property.

Animal-control officers also found the body of Buttons dead in the woods.

Both were found to have been killed by a dog attack.

During Large's original trial in December 2005, at least five witnesses spoke about Large's dogs running around the Partlow neighborhood. Several also spoke of the dogs' aggressive nature.

Though Large only admitted to owning one of the pit bulls that attacked Sullivan, witnesses said at least one of the other two involved in the attack were her pets as well.

The investigation also showed that Large did not secure the pit bulls on her property and she let them run free, according to the statement of facts.

Following yesterday's decision, Large will complete her three years in prison for the manslaughter charge and pay a $500 fine for letting her dogs run loose.

There is also a $5 million civil suit pending against Spotsylvania County by Sullivan's family. The suit alleges that the Animal Control officers in Spotsylvania were negligent in preventing the attacks because they knew the dogs were dangerous and didn't do something sooner.

The county has denied those claims. A hearing on the civil case will be held Dec. 6.

Ellen Biltz: 540/374-5424
Email: ebiltz@freelancestar.com