CHAPEL HILL — About 70 people and a half-dozen service dogs squeezed into a downtown courtroom Tuesday to support a Carrboro dog trainer charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty.
Debra Cunningham, the program director at Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, entered an Alford plea in Orange County District Court. An Alford plea lets someone accept punishment without admitting guilt. Her case was continued to May 20.
If Cunningham fulfills the terms of a deal with the District Attorney’s Office – 100 hours of community volunteer work and continuing to train dogs under supervision – she could receive a prayer for judgment, avoiding conviction and a criminal record.
Stopping often to force back tears, Cunningham spoke for 10 minutes about her terrible mistake and what the golden retriever named Worthy meant to her.
“I will never forget cradling him in my arms. This was a puppy that I had woken up with that morning. He had walked with me, tugging his leash,” she said. “This was a puppy, I had cleaned off his muddy paws when I would come inside, and now he was limp in my arms.”
Carrboro police charged Cunningham last summer after she left the 2-year-old dog in her car for two hours on June 10. When she returned to the car, Worthy was unconscious and panting, according to records and EENP. He died the next day from hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature.
Defense attorney Bill Massengale said the temperature that day reached 70 degrees.
Cunningham has been under supervision at work and forbidden from traveling with dogs since she was charged. EENP secretary and board member Gretchen Aylsworth and Julie Jenkins, training manager with the animal welfare group Paws4ever, will choose a new person to supervise her.
If the case had gone to trial, Assistant District Attorney Jason Murphy said, prosecutors would have had to convince a jury that Cunningham willingly or knowingly exposed Worthy to harm. Instead, she will share her story with others to show how the simplest acts can cause unintended harm, he said.
Charlene Hayes, the “puppy parent” who raised Worthy, and his breeder were in court but declined to speak.
‘Care and compassion’
Puppy parent Katie Greenwood said she has learned so much from Cunningham about training dogs and how to understand them. In more than an hour of statements Tuesday, others shared similar stories and talked about how the EENP program has changed their lives or those of family members.
“We really follow Deb’s lead when it comes to the proper orientation of our priorities, which is building a relationship between the dog and the client,” she said. “This is a level of care and compassion that goes above and beyond what many other service dog agencies offer.”
Orange County Judge Pat DeVine joined supporters on the other side of the bench. She presented presiding District Court Judge Jay Bryan with a binder of 113 letters backing Cunningham, asking him to show compassion and consider how his decision will affect the group’s work.
At one point Ann Peterson, a board member with Paws4ever, left her seat in the jury box, bringing a client’s service dog, Clay, to lie at Cunningham’s feet. The dog was getting concerned about her, Peterson explained.
11 dogs placed
EENP began training dogs in 2008 to work with people with diabetes, seizure disorders and other medical conditions. It placed its first dogs in 2010, charging $20,000 per dog and helping clients who could not pay the full amount with scholarships. The group has placed 11 dogs, and two more are nearly ready, EENP officials said.
Since the incident, the service-dog training program has canceled fundraisers and closed its former office at 209 Lloyd St. in Carrboro. Following a review by a four-member independent panel in August, seven of 10 board members voluntarily resigned, EENP officials said.
However, the agency renewed its charitable solicitation license earlier this year. Board Chairman Josh Gurlitz said Tuesday they have gone through “a period of introspection and self-analysis,” emerging with a plan to reopen and keep Cunningham on the staff.
Cunningham and EENP executive director Maria Ikenberry, who did not speak at the hearing, are partners and live together.