Man gets life term for killing police dog

Man gets life term for killing police dog
Ronald J. Chenette, who killed a police dog in 2007, leaves court Friday after receiving a life sentence. (Photo by Zachary Kaufman, The Columbian)
VANCOUVER, Wash. - Ronald J. Chenette, convicted six months ago in the death of a police dog, knew what was going to happen well before Friday’s sentencing hearing in Clark County Superior Court.

Everyone else knew, too.

The sentence was dictated by a "three strikes" law that locks away felons for life after three violent crimes.

The absence of suspense, then, maybe explains why nobody who didn’t have to be at the hearing showed up, save for Chenette’s parents and one other supporter.

When Judge Roger Bennett expressed surprise that no officers showed up on behalf of Dakota, a 5-year-old German shepherd owned by the Vancouver Police Department, Deputy Prosecutor Scott Jackson shrugged.

The sentencing had been rescheduled many times — due to requests from court-appointed defense attorney Jeff Barrar, who was investigating a tip about juror misconduct that didn’t turn up anything — and maybe officers simply gave up trying to attend, Jackson said.

Jackson also mentioned that SWAT officers who responded to the Oct. 23, 2007, incident, were in training on Friday afternoon.

Unable to argue the sentence, Barrar expressed hope the case will get people to think about how poorly society deals with the mentally ill.

Chenette had been diagnosed in 2000 with paranoid schizophrenia. He hadn’t been taking his medicine.

"His parents love him, they tried to care for him, but they can’t watch him every second of every day," Barrar said.

The day Dakota was shot, Chenette "got his hands on a couple of beers and a handgun," Barrar said.

Chenette’s friend called 911 and said Chenette was threatening to kill police. SWAT officers were called out to a wooded area behind Bethel Cemetery.

Facing a steep gully that would have been difficult for the two-legged officers to navigate, Dakota went in.

Soon, officers heard a gunshot.

Chenette said he fought with Dakota for more than a minute before he fired, and he fired because he thought Dakota was going for his throat and was going to kill him.

"All I have to say is, I’m sorry about the dog that got shot," Chenette said.

As of June 2008, 310 men and four women had received life sentences under the three-strikes law, including 16 offenders from Clark County.

The most common offenses to count as third strikes, according to the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, are first- and second-degree robbery and second-degree assault.

Bennett said the three-strikes law "sweeps up" more people than lawmakers may have intended when they signed off on the 1993 voter-approved law.

Second-degree robbery, he said, is "glorified shoplifting."

Chenette’s first two strikes are second-degree murder (he killed a drug dealer) and second-degree assault.

Chenette, Bennett said, is exactly the type of offender lawmakers had in mind.

Harming a police dog, a class C felony, isn’t a strike. Prosecutors filed a firearms enhancement for using a gun and that elevated the crime to a strike.

Since the first two crimes were against humans, Bennett said it wasn’t "freakish, or unfair or unconstitutional" that Chenette was getting a life term for killing a dog.

Besides, offenders with two strikes are on thin ice.

"Even a shoving match at a 7-11 over a bottle of beer could have resulted in life in prison," Bennett said.

The Columbian is a news partner of KATU-TV in Portland, Ore. Read the original story with comments.