Woman who shot her family’s dog convicted of felony

Joyce Cornell and her attorney appear at the Bennington Superior criminal court on Thursday, June 16. Screenshot

A Sandgate woman who shot her family’s pet dog the day after Christmas in 2019 has been convicted of a felony.

Joyce Cornell, 48, was found guilty Friday of aggravated cruelty to animals by torture, following a bench trial, in which a judge weighs the evidence and issues the verdict.

Superior Court Judge Cortland Corsones announced his verdict about two weeks after Cornell’s May 31 trial in Bennington. Corsones concluded that Cornell intentionally, maliciously and without just cause tortured a Great Dane by shooting it twice at her home on Dec. 26, 2019.

“Ms. Cornell did have an evil intent to cause harm to the animal,” the judge said at the hearing. “I find from the evidence that she was upset with the dog from the night before. She’d had enough of the dog as a result of its actions the night before, and she resolved to shoot the dog, and she did.”

Aggravated cruelty to animals carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, but Corsones said he will consider deferring any prison term. Cornell is scheduled for sentencing in around six weeks.

Cornell tested at trial that she’d been playing with the dog, named Atticus, that Christmas afternoon when the animal bit her in the ankle. She said she barricaded herself in the bathroom for about 15 hours, until the following morning, when the dog had calmed down and indicated it wanted to go outside.

During these events, Cornell’s husband tested that he was sleeping after having too much to drink on Christmas Day.

Cornell said she attached the dog to its run line, then heard it pacing to come back inside from the cold. She said she opened the front door and its screen door, and saw the dog snarl and bare its teeth. She said she got scared and shot it with a handgun she’d retrieved for protective purposes.

Nearly an hour later, when she heard the dog moving, Cornell said she shot it again from the bathroom window. “I wanted to put him out of his misery, because he’s hurt because of me,” Cornell said on the witness stand.

A clinical psychologist who tested for the defense supported Cornell’s assertion that she had no evil intent in shooting the animal.

On the morning that the Great Dane was shot, a trash collector saw the dog tied up in the yard and the home’s front doorstep covered in blood. State troopers who responded to the report arrived to find the animal bleeding heavily down the chest from a neck wound. A staff member from Second Chance Animal Shelter in Arlington, where the Cornells had adopted it in November 2019, also came to the scene.

At the suggestion of the shelter staffer, a trooper euthanized the dog, with three gunshots. This occurred roughly six hours after the animal had first been shot, according to police.

The prosecutor asserted that Cornell intentionally, maliciously and without just cause tortured the dog — issues at the center of the trial.

Bennington County Deputy State’s Attorney Alex Burke said Cornell made a conscious choice to grab a pistol while the animal was tied up, knowing that shooting a dog would likely cause death.

He said she also left the dog bleeding outside for about 45 minutes, without providing aid or treating its injuries, before shooting the animal a second time. Burke said Cornell had alternatives to shooting the rescue dog.

Judge Corsones, in announcing the conviction, said he found beyond a reasonable doubt that Cornell tortured the dog by shooting it twice, causing it physical pain and suffering.

The judge said he found “evil intent” in Cornell’s actions and a lack of compassion, because she wasn’t in danger both times she shot the dog, as it was still attached to the run line.

“If she was acting compassionately, she would have let the dog remain outside and be cold and wait for her husband to wake up rather than to approach the dog with a gun and decide to shoot it,” Corsones said.

He added that, if she had been concerned about having a vicious dog at home, she could have returned it to Second Chance Animal Shelter. The court had heard testimony that after Cornell and her husband adopted Atticus, they returned to the shelter, expressing concerns about the dog’s behavior, but didn’t follow through with the shelter’s offer of help.

The judge also said that Cornell’s sister-in-law is a veterinarian and could have helped them with the Great Dane.

At Friday’s hearing, Cornell also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of providing false information to a law enforcement officer investigating the dog shooting.

She admitted lying to troopers when asked if anyone else was inside her home. She’d said no, when she knew her husband, Scott Cornell, had been inside the residence.

When troopers entered the home, they found him — as well as 23 firearms, including rifles and shotguns. He wasn’t allowed to own firearms because he was a convicted felon who’d been found guilty of a violent crime.

In April 2021, Scott Cornell pleaded guilty to 10 misdemeanor counts of prohibited possession of a firearm under a deal with the Bennington County State’s Attorney’s Office. Corsones sentenced him to one to three years in jail, all suspended, and placed him on probation for 18 months.

The prosecutor earlier dismissed another felony charge of aggravated cruelty to an animal by causing undue pain against Joyce Cornell. The state alleged that she killed the dog, but her defense attorney, Rick Burgoon, argued that it was state troopers who killed the animal when they euthanized it.

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