BROOKSVILLE — If jurors felt compelled to wince as they passed around photographs of the tiny, furry victims, they resisted the urge.
In the first photo, a jet black kitten lies at the bottom of a trash can among dirty paper plates, a juice box and empty Coca-Cola and Natural Ice cans. The animal's eyes are closed, its fur wet and matted.
In the second, a gray and white kitten lies prone on a blanket, its head upturned so only the bottom of its neck is visible.
The felines, prosecutor Jason Smith told a Hernando County Circuit Court jury on Wednesday, died at the hands of Wilana Joenel Frazier and her two young sons. On a June day in 2011, Smith said, Frazier beat the kittens with a metal baseball bat in a park east of Brooksville, then allowed her young sons to continue the torture.
The black kitten died at the bottom of the trash can. The other, named Dexter, suffered brain damage, but appeared to be on the road to recovery before succumbing to seizures two months later. His story went viral on the Internet, and people came to know him in places as far away as Uruguay, Laos and Oman.
Frazier, 25, has adamantly denied the accusations that have made her the target of hate mail and an online petition signed by some 29,000 people demanding that she be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Her sons, 8 and 5 years old at the time, also denied that they harmed the cats.
Frazier, who was pregnant at time of her arrest and has since had a third child, turned down a plea deal that would have required her to serve a year in jail, followed by five years of probation. If convicted on all four counts of animal cruelty and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, she faces a maximum of 12 years in prison.
On Wednesday, she sat hunched and stone-faced, her long black hair hanging over large silver hoop earrings, as her defense attorney, Todd Hopson, made his opening remarks to jurors.
The jury would hear scant evidence supporting the charges, Hopson said. Frazier and her sons were at the park that day watching a basketball tournament, he said, and the boys at one point did play with the animals until Frazier admonished them.
"She told them to stay away from the cats," Hopson said.
Among the witnesses called Wednesday was Patricia Henry, a neighbor of Frazier's who has known her for several years. Henry testified that she brought her own children to the park to play baseball, and later saw Frazier standing near the kittens, holding the Henry family's metal bat. Henry said the bat was bloody, but she didn't see Frazier hitting the animals with it.
The case will hinge on the testimony of three young children who say they did see Frazier and her sons torturing the cats. The witnesses — two 10-year-old boys and an 11-year-old girl — are expected to take the stand today.
Polling potential jurors earlier Wednesday, Smith asked if they would hold it against him if he put a 10-year-old on the stand. None said they would, and none said they would give a child's testimony less weight than an adult's.
The start of the trial ends months of waiting and watching for Jackie Dry and other members of Team Dexter, a loose affiliation of animal lovers who have latched onto Frazier's case as a way to highlight animal abuse.
Dry, a 73-year-old Brooksville resident who had T-shirts made emblazoned with a picture of Dexter on the front, said she has attended every one of Frazier's pretrial hearings.
"We have to stop animal abuse because from there we go to child abuse," she said.
Dry said she believes Frazier is guilty of a crime.
"I'm willing to listen to the facts," she said. "That's why I'm here. Whatever the jury decides, I will have to agree with. That's the justice system working for us."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.