DADE CITY — Circuit Judge Susan Gardner had a tough decision to make.
Prosecutors showed photos of emaciated dogs, including one that died minutes after authorities arrived at the home where the animals were kept outside in squalor. Angelic Lee deserved 18 months in prison, they argued Monday.
But Lee's attorneys pointed to her previously unblemished record. They put up witnesses, including Lee, her father, son and daughter.
It was her ex-husband's fault, her relatives said. They were his dogs. He abandoned Lee and refused to help care for the animals despite her pleas.
They said prison was no place for Lee.
In the end, Gardner found her answer in the law. Lee's background and the nature of the case didn't merit prison time under state sentencing rules. The judge gave three months of probation plus 100 hours of community service to Lee, who had pleaded no contest in September to eight counts of animal cruelty. She also barred Lee from owning any animals during her probation.
"I have no reason not to follow the (state sentencing) guidelines here today," she told Lee on Monday. "It's inexcusable what happened. Whoever's fault it is, you're on the hook, and you should pay the price.
Gardner agreed to withhold a formal finding of guilt, meaning if Lee completes her sentence successfully she can have her felony record wiped clean if she is not found guilty in any other cases.
The sentence closed the case on Lee, who was arrested in September 2010 after animal control officers found eight starving dogs at her mobile home on Holiday Drive in Dade City. Two had died. The other six were taken to a veterinarian and began gaining weight when fed properly. All had diseases such as hookworm, which are easily cured but can be serious if left untreated.
Lee, 41, who is unemployed, told the judge she was unable to pay for food for the dogs after her ex-husband walked out.
"I was borrowing money," she said. "I was doing everything I could for these animals. I'm not an abusive person when it comes to animals."
Her father, Robert Clark, said he told Lee's ex-husband to remove the dogs.
"I think he should be the one sitting in this court hearing," Clark said.
But prosecutors showed pictures of several dogs, including one the judge described as "pure skin and bones."
"This dog is lying in his own feces," said assistant state attorney Justin Petredis as he showed a photo of a filthy pen. "And that's where he died.
"She still to this day blames someone else."