Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. said he prefers not to preach to or lecture a defendant before doling out a sentence.
He told everyone in the packed courtroom Thursday morning to get comfortable. He was about to make an exception.
Merritt had a lot to say to Wilana Frazier, who last month was convicted on two counts of animal cruelty and one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after fatally beating two kittens with a baseball bat and encouraging one of her young sons to take part in the abuse.
Before her sentenced was announced, Frazier, 25, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, took her place next to her attorney and faced the judge.
Frazier is pregnant with her fifth child. Her attorney, Todd Hopson, said due to her lack of a criminal record, she should be released from jail and be required to serve probation – in large part to spare taxpayers from bearing the cost of her prenatal care.
"Give me another chance, please, I am not a bad person," Frazier said to the judge. "I can do it. I just want to go back home, be with my kids and raise them the right way."
She was sentenced to one year in jail and was required to pay restitution and court costs. Included in her restitution was $867 to a local pet shelter that treated one of the two kittens, which eventually was euthanized due to the extensive brain injuries caused by the beatings.
The other kitten was dead and lying in a trash can by the time an animal services officer responded the afternoon of June 10, 2011 to Hill 'n Dale Community Park.
Witnesses, most of them children, told authorities they saw Frazier and two of her sons beat, torture and kill the stray kittens, which were about 6 weeks old. For involving her own children in the animal abuse, Frazier was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but jurors acquitted her on one of the charges.
The trial lasted two days and Frazier was convicted July 12. She has served 21 days in jail, which will be credited to her sentence.
Frazier spoke for less than 10 seconds during her sentencing hearing. When it was Merritt's turn to speak, he took more than 10 minutes.
Merritt acknowledged Frazier's criminal record, which was devoid of any prior convictions. She was not anywhere close to being eligible for a state prison sentence, even though two of her charges were felonies.
Merritt also said Frazier posed no evident danger to society.
"While Ms. Frazier may be an obvious danger to cats, cats are not members of the public, much to the chagrin of some," the judge said.
He said the Legislature – and most of society – seems to weigh differently harming a person versus harming an animal.
"In my view, rightfully so," Merritt told the court.
He acknowledged there were people who were angry at Frazier and wanted her either "burned at the stake" or "beaten with a bat."
He said he had decided early on that public sentiment was not going play a part in his decision. He received letters from people beckoning him to give Frazier a harsh sentence, but he didn't read a single one of them. They were returned to sender.
He said he didn't wish to "belittle" animal rights advocates and credited them for following a cause, as long as it was tempered with moderation.
"Certainly the allegations shocked the average person and made them notice," he said.
Merritt's statements riled some of the animal welfare advocates who were in the courtroom. Among them was Betty Dobson, who said she didn't appreciate the way the judge "chastised" her and others like her.
"He humiliated us with his 'Sermon on the Mount' that we were putting animals ahead of humans when it comes to crimes, which is far from the truth," she said.
When Merritt announced the one-year jail sentence, Frazier's family stood up and quietly left the courtroom. They didn't stay to listen to all of the requirements of the sentence, which included – in addition to 12 months in jail and restitution – five years of probation, no eligibility for early termination of probation until the first year is complete, 100 hours of community service, a mental health evaluation and anger management.
The judge also said Frazier would not be allowed to own a pet or live in a house with a pet during her probation.
"Not so much as a pet rock," Merritt said.
He summed up Frazier's behavior as "abhorrent" and "deserving of punishment."
At the end of Thursday's hearing, Merritt wished Frazier luck. She thanked him and was led out of the courtroom.
Dobson said Merritt's suggestion that Frazier's community service include volunteering at a pet shelter would be met with extreme resistance.
"He won't find one facility that will let her step foot on their grounds and with good reason," she said.
The kitten that lived for a couple months, named Dexter, was adopted by Tiffany Sroka, a surgery technician at PetLuv, the clinic that cared for the brain-damaged kitten.
Sroka's daughter, now 6, was attached to Dexter and was emotionally crushed when the kitten had to be euthanized. It was only this week that Sroka fostered another kitten. Her daughter still catches herself calling him Dexter, she said.
Sroka said she was relieved the case reached a just conclusion, but more importantly, she was glad to learn Frazier would undergo counseling while in jail.
"I'm concerned about the mental stability of both her and her children at home," she said.
During his speech, the judge made a few comments – perhaps thinly veiled criticism – about the media attention the swirled over the Frazier case.
Merritt recalled a prior court date for Frazier, which came on the same day as a motion hearing for murder defendant Byron Burch, who has been accused of killing a retired school teacher in her home.
When Merritt saw the video cameras in the back of the courtroom that day, he asked a bailiff whether they were there for the Burch case.
The bailiff told him, "No judge, they're here for the cat case," Merritt said.