BROOKSVILLE — Hernando Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. does not usually pontificate during sentencing hearings. But he had something to say before he meted out punishment Thursday to a convicted cat killer.
The case of Wilana Joenel Frazier and the story of Dexter, the kitten she beat with a bat, had drawn the ire of animal lovers around the world. And Merritt wanted to explain what he was about to do.
"Some would have this court inappropriately, and figuratively, burn this woman at the stake, give her an unlawful sentence of years in prison, or better still, have her beaten with a bat," he said during his 14-minute speech. "One of the primary and inviolate commitments a circuit judge makes is that public sentiment will play no part in the decisionmaking process."
A few minutes later, the judge sentenced Frazier to a year in the county jail, followed by five years of probation. The sentence likely means that Frazier, who is expecting a fifth child, will deliver the baby while in custody.
Frazier cried when she was convicted last month, but showed little emotion Thursday. A few of the people who had attended every hearing to see justice for Dexter did not celebrate overtly.
Calling the 25-year-old Brooksville resident's crime "abhorrent," Merritt also ruled that Frazier will not be allowed to have a pet or live with someone who does.
"Not even so much as a pet rock," he said.
Frazier will receive credit for 21 days she has served since jurors decided she used a bat to bash Dexter at a park east of Brooksville in June 2011. Frazier also was accused of allowing or encouraging her 8-year-son to torture a second kitten found dead that day at the bottom of a trash can among empty beer and soda cans. Dexter lived for about two months before he had to be euthanized due to severe seizures.
The sentence is what prosecutors had sought and essentially the toughest that Merritt could levy for Frazier's conviction on two counts of animal cruelty and one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Though the charges carried a maximum penalty of 11 years in prison, the judge explained that he could not give Frazier more than a year in jail because her lack of prior convictions indicated she was a not a danger to the public.
"While Miss Frazier may be an obvious danger to cats, cats are not members of the public, perhaps to the chagrin of some," Merritt said.
Frazier has adamantly denied that she hurt the kittens. Clad in orange jail garb, she stood hunched over a lectern and asked for leniency from the judge.
"I would ask for you to give me another chance, please, because I'm not a bad person," she said. "I just want to go back home to my family and take care of my kids and raise them the right way."
Frazier must serve 100 hours of community service, preferably cleaning kennels and doing other work for an organization such as the Humane Society, if such a group will have her, Merritt said. She also must undergo a mental health evaluation and take part in parenting and anger-management classes.
During his preamble, as a television news camera rolled, Merritt told a story.
About five or six months ago, the judge recalled, a bailiff approached him to say that TV crews had arrived and wanted to know where to set up. Merritt asked if they had come for a hearing in the case of a man suspected of brutally murdering an elderly Brooksville woman.
"No, judge, they're here for the cat case," the bailiff replied.
Merritt paused for a moment.
"It's not my intention to belittle animal activists in any way whatsoever," he said in his monotone Southern drawl. "Having a cause is a good thing, all things being tempered with moderation.
"We've got people in our country that can't find work, are homeless, are hungry, that can't pay for their medical care. Children who are neglected and abused. People shooting people in the picture show. In the larger picture of our state and nation and what comes before this court, some would say this case is rather inane but for the media attention which it has garnered."
He wondered, though, what damage Frazier might have done to her son by showing a level of "depravity" for which she must be punished. Then he announced his ruling.
A few minutes later, Merritt sentenced a convicted murderer to life in prison.
The television cameraman who had been in the courtroom for Frazier's sentencing had already packed up and left.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.