TAYLOR COUNTY—Many new faces were present in Taylor County Circuit Court for a hearing on what many have been calling the Taylor County Animal Neglect Case.
Marvin R. Austin, Grace E. Austin and Bonnie Austin were all present with their lawyers to discuss matters pertaining to three cases.
Bader C. Giggenbach will be representing M. Austin, while Michael D. Simms will be handling G. Austin’s cause and Michael J. Benninger will represent B. Austin.
Present on behalf of the state of West Virginia was Matthew Hickman, Harrison County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney to the special prosecutor in the case, Rachel Romano.
The group met to discuss the scheduling of future hearings, as well as to set deadlines for any pre-trial motions to be filed.
The first matter addressed was the scheduling of B. Austin’s civil case. Benninger revealed that he had come forward to request a hearing for B. Austin for the right to a timely hearing.
However, he believes that it would be best to address the civil case following the closure of M. Austin and Grace Austin’s misdemeanor cases.
He noted that his concerns stem from the fact that due to the untimely death of her other son, who was the owner of many of the animals seized by officers during their investigation, the operational rights fell to B. Austin.
“I have some Fifth Amendment concerns, so I would ask that the civil case be scheduled after the two other cases are completed,” shared Benninger. “If there were issues with costs or ownership, they may be resolved within those cases first.”
Both Giggenbach and Simms noted that their clients would be asking for a jury trial in the matter.
“It is my understanding from the clerk, that the next term of court in Taylor County begins in September,” said Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Thomas A. Bedell, special judge in the case. “Judge Moats and the clerk have not yet set dates for juries to appear, so we will not set a hard and fast date for trial today.”
He noted that upon speaking with Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Alan Moats and Taylor County Circuit Clerk Vonda Reneman, he would advise the attorneys of various dates and then they could make a decision.
Prosecutor Hickman voiced concerns with scheduling the civil case after the conclusion of the other two cases, citing WV Code § 7-10-4, which pertains to the custody and care of animals abandoned, neglected or cruelly treated; hearing; bonds; liability for costs; liens; and exclusions.
“Seizure hearings are typically set within 15 days. A request is issued for the hearing within five days of animals being seized and then a hearing is set within the 10 days after the request is made,” he noted.
He revealed that to date, approximately 200 animals had been seized from the Austin farm, located in Thornton.
“They animals are in the care of other individuals, and those parties are having to incur costs for the animals, creating financial hardships,” Hickman said. “The state’s concern is setting a trial date too far down the road and putting these volunteers out of too much money.”
Judge Bedell said that in making the waiver allowing for the civil case to be handled following the outcome of the criminal cases, he is aware of the potential responsibility.
“This is a very complicated matter. Haste is not in the best interest for any party involved because it is such a complex matter,” he voiced.
It was agreed that B. Austin’s civil case would be set down for hearing following the conclusion of the criminal cases involving her son and granddaughter.
The next matter discussed was setting a deadline for pre-trail motions in the cases.
“We are asking that you make a firm motion deadline in each of these cases,” Benninger addressed the court.
He shared that it was his understanding that more discovery would be forthcoming from the state’s investigation.
“The first half of discovery has been turned over to the defense council already. The other half I have received today, and it could be turned over as early as Monday or Tuesday,” Hickman revealed.
Judge Bedell ordered that all discovery would need to be turned over by the state by Tuesday, August 13, giving a ten-day period to the prosecutor. Giggenbach, Simms and Benninger would then have to turn over any reciprocal discovery by August 23.
“That will give you two weeks to file any pre-trail motions by September 6, 2019, and the state would then have 10 days to file responses by September 16,” Bedell instructed the attorneys.
He further ordered that a hearing would be scheduled for Friday, September 27, at 9:00 a.m., to discuss pretrial motions, as well as to schedule further hearings for the criminal matters and the subsequent civil case.
He said that it was his intention to hold a joint trail for M. Austin and G. Austin, because the court has the discretion to do so. He added that the defense attorneys could address that with motions if they saw a need.
Both Simms and Giggenbach noted that they may make motions regarding the bond of their clients before the initial hearing, sharing that if needed they would travel to Harrison County to hold a hearing there, if needed.
“I will certainly work with you as far as scheduling if we need to get you in sooner,” Bedell commented. “However, I believe it is important that all hearings be held here in Taylor County.”
He voiced it was his intention to conduct future hearings in the Taylor County Courthouse.