TAMPA — A man who killed, cooked and ate the family dog will not go to state prison, but will have to get residential mental health treatment after a psychologist said the man suffers from untreated mental illness.
Thomas Huggins, 26, was convicted last month of animal cruelty for strangling the pit bull, Bandit, which he said had become aggressive.
Huggins testified during his trial that he used a plastic garbage bag to suffocate the dog, holding her with a towel or blanket to keep her from struggling. He said he had to try twice because Bandit got away the first time.
Court-appointed psychologist Peter Bursten testified Friday that Huggins suffers from schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type, a form of schizophrenia.
“He knows that something’s not right, but he doesn’t understand the extent of it,” said Bursten, who testified that while the mental illness likely influenced Huggins’ actions regarding the dog, it did not render him legally insane.
“He knew what he was doing,” Bursten said. “He understood the wrongfulness of his behavior.”
Bursten said Huggins can be treated with medication, but that Huggins told him he regards medicine to be “the Antichrist.”
But Huggins told Circuit Judge Samantha Ward he will submit to treatment.
“I don’t believe medication is the Antichrist. I would take medication,” he said. “I would agree to take medication and I would go to therapy if it would help … I don’t want to go to prison.”
Bursten testified Huggins grew up in impoverished conditions; his family caught, skinned and ate animals like rabbits and gophers to survive.
Assistant State Attorney Joel Elsea urged Ward to find Huggins a danger to the community and sentence him to two years in state prison, followed by probation with mental health treatment.
Public defender Lauren Flanagan asked for probation and mental health treatment. Flanagan said Huggins came from an unstable home; both his parents served prison time, and his father was not in the picture. He lived in a chaotic household, but managed to graduate high school and earn a football scholarship to college.
Flanagan said Huggins went to college in Oklahoma, but had to return after problems arose with the scholarship. About this time, she said, he began suffering symptoms of mental illness.
Ward said she would have been inclined to grant the prosecution’s request, even though sentencing guidelines call for probation in this case. But she said Bursten’s testimony persuaded her to allow Huggins to avoid state prison.
Huggins has already served 177 days in county jail while his case was pending. The judge withheld adjudication of guilt, and ordered Huggins to serve 364 days in county jail.
That sentence will be suspended once Huggins is admitted to residential mental health treatment, Ward said. After he completes that treatment, he will serve five years probation, with conditions including outpatient treatment, anger management counseling, medication, vocational treatment and 150 hours of community service work.
Ward also said Huggins cannot own any pets or live in a house where any pets are kept.