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Prosecution rests in ‘Champ’ animal abuse case

Elizabeth James (Morton)

The prosecution rested its case Wednesday afternoon after hearing from veterinarians who treated a dog so emaciated that it led to criminal charges against a Laurens woman.

Elizabeth Lena James, whose married name is Morton, faces felony ill-treatment of animal charges in the case of “Champ,” a Mastiff mix that was found severely under weight and infested with hook worms and maggots in August of 2018.

During testimony Wednesday, defense witnesses and veterinarians Dr. Michael Sauer of Paws and Claws Animal Clinic in the Columbia area and Dr. Tracy Schlicksup of Columbia Veterinary Emergency Trauma and Specialty (CVETS), both of whom cared for the dog after it was rescued from James’ Lisbon Road home, said the dog’s poor condition was due to neglect.

“He was on death’s doorstep when he came in,” said Sauer of the dog now called Champ, whose story became national and international news as it was shared on social media.

Sauer said he has as many as 20 animals rescued from alleged abusive situations at his clinic at any one time, adding that he routinely works with Rescue Dogs Rock of New York City, the organization that rescued Champ and paid for his care.

While prosecutor Warren Mowry has attempted to establish that the dog was purposefully neglected and starved, defense attorneys have contended that an infestation of hook worms actually caused its poor condition.

In a sometimes contentious cross examination with James’ public defender, Joel Broome, Sauer said hook worms could have played a role, but neglect was the primary cause of Champ’s poor condition.

“He was the skinniest rescue I’ve seen that was still alive,” Sauer said. “Someone didn’t care for him. He was just neglected.”

Broome attempted to poke holes in Sauer’s testimony, concentrating for a time on Sauer’s disinterest in the dog’s previous medical records, such as the ones from Clinton Animal Hospital and Dr. Jenifer Dixon, the first clinic and veterinarian to treat the dog after its rescue by Laurens County Animal Control, and questioning why Sauer did not do a variety of tests and get x-rays on the dog’s stomach.

“What was important was getting the dog stable,” Sauer said. “I trying to help him make it through the night, and performing a bunch of expensive tests and taking x-rays had nothing to do with that.”

The defense was dealt a blow when Judge Donald B. Hocker ruled against a motion for a continuance to allow time for the return of Laurens County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Chris Martin from his vacation in Florida. Martin was the lead investigator in the case and made public statements to the media about the case. Defense attorneys said they wanted to question Martin and their inability to do so denied James her Constitutional right to face her accusers.

Hocker also denied a defense motion for a directed verdict due to what attorneys said was a lack of evidence presented by the prosecution. In denying the motion, Hocker said the state had met its burden with “substantial circumstantial evidence.”

The defense is expected to call at least one witness Thursday morning when the court reconvenes. James told the court that she and her attorneys had not decided whether or not she will testify in her own defense.


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