Dog on Death Row for More Than Seven Years

Word has seen some hard times. For seven-and-a-half years, the 10-year-old Lhasa apso has been locked in a 5-foot by 20-foot cage on the Isolated Run at Seattle's Animal Control Shelter. Over the years, he watched his fellow prisoner, Parshebe, struggle with cancer and die behind bars. Twice a month his owner, Wilton Rabon, comes for a 20-minute visit, to remind the dog that he is not alone. In fact, his dream team – a group of eight lawyers working pro bono – has been struggling for years to set him free.

What began as a simple story of dog bites woman has mushroomed into one of the world's longest dog incarcerations and, possibly, one of the most expensive: So far, it's cost the state and city more than $200,000 to keep Word behind bars. The case has gone all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court and is now before the state's Court of Appeals for the second time.

Even so, says one of his attorneys, Mitzi Leibst, Word may be an innocent dog. Parshebe, she believes, was the perp that day in 1993 when a woman in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood was bitten twice. Two days later, another woman in the same neighborhood was also bitten.

Sentenced to Death

Several hours after the second attack, Animal Control officers came for Word and Parshebe. After his owner was put on trial and convicted for owning vicious animals, the state sentenced both dogs to death, setting Aug. 4, 1995, as the target date. Parshebe died years ago, but Word has languished in the lockup ever since.

"When the dogs were seized, there should have been a hearing," says Leibst, who has been working the case 1995. "The city cannot go around snatching up people's property right and left – and that's what they did in this case. Even those who were attacked had considerable difficulty identifying the biting dog. It's quite likely that Word was just an innocent bystander in both cases."

But assistant city attorney Thomas Castagna argues the animal is a threat to public safety. "This dog is a biter and doesn't belong on the streets," he says. "The (state) Supreme Court, in this case and in other cases, has recognized the right of the city to seize dogs to protect the public under its police power," he continues.

Although Rabon was convicted in 1993, he never gave up the fight. And after appeals at three judicial levels, Rabon's lawyers argued at a court-ordered hearing that the dogs were taken without providing a chance for Rabon to question why – a violation of his constitutional right to due process.

Dogs Sentenced to Death

That hearing was held in late 1998. Shortly afterward, Don Jordan, animal-control manager, issued a new order to euthanize the dogs, but offered Rabon the chance to let them go to a nonprofit pet sanctuary in Utah.

"Death or banishment – those aren't really great options," says Leibst. And the legal team went back to court. In their latest appeal, now before the Washington State Court of Appeals, they claim the lower court did not take into account the defendant's property rights to his dogs, specifically the special emotional relationship a dog owner has with his pet. State courts have never considered special rights inherent in unique human-animal companionships, says Harlan Dorfman, another Rabon attorney.

The city continues to repeat its offer to allow Word to be released to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. But, says Rabon, nothing doing. "Word needs me," he says. "I still see him twice a month and he looks forward to that. If he were sent to Utah, I would probably never see him again. He's my dog and he should be able to come home with me."