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Dead dog's owner hears courtroom apology from driver he assaulted

TAMPA — Last Labor Day, a 165-pound Great Dane mix named Brutus bounded into the path of a speeding Porsche and died. On the quiet streets of a Temple Terrace neighborhood, the dog's owner caught up to the driver with a baseball bat.

The man with the bat went on trial Thursday, charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

The man with the car wished it hadn't come to this.

James Scism wanted more than anything to tell John George Kennedy that he didn't mean to kill the dog. That he has his own dog at home. That he still cries when he thinks about what happened. And he understands why Kennedy was so angry.

But court rules require silence between victims and the accused.

• • •

The men who live a street apart showed up in court Thursday in ties, hair graying into white. Scism, 62, is a heating, ventilation and air conditioning engineer. Kennedy, 55, is an Army veteran and retired pediatric nurse. Both are fathers and husbands. Both brought their wives.

Each took the witness stand and told a story that began at sunset on Sept. 7, 2009.

Scism's teenage daughter had finished washing his 1983 Porshe, so he decided to take it for a spin.

Kennedy was in the front yard with his two dogs, tossing a ball when his smallest ran across the street. He heard a sports car's engine roaring closer and dashed toward the road try to flag the car to a stop. But knew he wouldn't make it in time. So he threw a plastic ball launcher to try to catch the driver's attention.

His other dog, Brutus, thought he was playing fetch.

Scism admitted he was speeding when it happened: A dog, looking more like a horse, came out of nowhere and into his right fender.

Kennedy watched Brutus spin twice and land at his feet.

Brutus was 3 years old and training to be a therapy dog. Kennedy first held him as a 16-pound puppy. He grew to be a gentle giant, and his best friend.

The driver said he tried to stop afterward, but the impact had damaged the car. So he coasted to the end of the block and beyond.

Kennedy grabbed his wife by the shirt. "Brutus is dead!" he remembers telling her. "Brutus is dead!" Then he climbed into his pickup.

Scism had just finished pushing his car to the side of the road when he saw Kennedy.

"You killed my dog!" Kennedy remembers saying. He recalls Scism denying it.

But Scism said he was trying to apologize when Kennedy punched him in the face. He continued to say sorry as he tried to shield his face. But Kennedy hit him again and again.

Scism said Kennedy got a bat from his truck and threatened, "Now, I'm going to kill you."

Scism said that he felt the bat hit his back, his chest, his ear and his head and that Kennedy also kicked him.

Kennedy said he never used the bat on Scism. He brought it to hit the Porsche but didn't even do that. He left to attend to his dead dog, alone in the street.

The police arrived. So did an ambulance. Evidence photos showed Scism's bloody mouth and long, red marks on his back, shoulder and chest. His wife drove him to the hospital, where workers cleaned him up and told him to take Tylenol.

Kennedy went to jail.

• • •

The jury decided Kennedy was guilty of a lesser offense, battery. Had he been convicted of the original charge, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, Kennedy could have faced up to 56 months in prison.

Scism didn't want to see that. He didn't even want a trial. But Kennedy, he says, hasn't been able to let go of what happened, driving slowly by the house, scaring his wife and daughter, saying mean things. He told a judge all of that during sentencing. Kennedy denied it.

Then, just before Kennedy was sentenced to a year of probation, the rule that kept the two men from talking all these months was lifted. Usually at sentencing, the suspect apologizes to the victim.

In this case, it was the victim who had something to say.

Scism's eyes welled with tears. His voice trembled. He looked his neighbor in the eye. "Mr. Kennedy," Scism said, "I'm very sorry that your dog was killed in the incident. … I'm sorry for what's going on right now because of this. If you'd just left us alone, this would not have happened. But I'm sorry about your animal. I really am. It was a beautiful animal. I apologize to you with my whole heart, and to your dear wife."

Before they left the courtroom for Temple Terrace, the judge told the neighbors that the most important thing now was to find a way to get along.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Dead dog's owner hears courtroom apology from driver he assaulted 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 4:48pm]
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