No prison 
for teen
 who killed 
mom’s dog

Joseph Nelson

A Mesa County judge shunned a prison sentence in the case of a man who admitted torturing and killing his mother’s dog, saying prison would be the “least impactful” outcome in the high-profile case of Joseph Nelson.

District Judge Richard Gurley on Wednesday questioned whether Nelson could attain meaningful substance abuse or mental health treatment if he were sent to prison before being released back to the community. Nelson, 18, faced a maximum possible three-year term in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated cruelty to animals.

“I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the community,” Gurley said.

Gurley instead sentenced Nelson to serve 18 months in Mesa County Community Corrections, in addition to five years of supervised probation during which Nelson must complete drug and mental-health treatment. The judge also ordered Nelson restrained from all contact with domesticated animals for five years.

Gurley said he considered, but decided against, having Nelson work with various local animal organizations or businesses toward completing public service.

“I just didn’t think that was appropriate until he gets the counseling he needs,” the judge said.

Despite the sentence, Gurley expressed doubt as to whether Nelson would be successful on probation.

New law impacts case

The judge noted Nelson had eight juvenile arrests before age 18 — including three property crimes in which his grandmother was the named victim — and was unsuccessful in completing juvenile probation. He was eventually sentenced to the Division of Youth Corrections and finished parole nine months before Nelson’s arrest in connection with the Aug. 14, 2011, death of his mother’s mixed-breed dog, De Mayo. A passerby found De Mayo handing by its leash from the Orchard Mesa pedestrian bridge. The dog’s internal organs had been cut out and an eyeball was missing.

A witness told Grand Junction police that Nelson — in a rage after being contacted by police on an unrelated matter the night before the dog was found dead — swung the dog repeatedly by its leash and slammed it into a backyard shed at his mother’s home some “10 to 12” times, according to an arrest affidavit. The witness said Nelson kicked the dog and threw a bicycle on top of it.

Gurley on Wednesday said he was disturbed by Nelson’s “emotionless” attitude about the episode, as evidenced during a pre-sentence interview. Prosecutors have said Nelson told the interviewer he was high on methamphetamine during the incident and wasn’t “using his brain.”

Gurley on June 22 rejected a prior plea agreement in the case calling for probation and no incarceration, saying the plea agreement didn’t give him “enough options.”

The plea rejection came after the judge was bombarded by an online petition from animal rights activists, including 5,835 signatures, urging him to reject probation.

Nelson’s case was prosecuted amid renewed debate in Colorado on the type of juvenile crimes which should be prosecuted in adult court.

Nelson was 17 when the dog was killed, while District Attorney Pete Hautzinger in January moved to direct file adult charges. Gov. John Hickenlooper in April signed new legislation restricting prosecutors’ authority to file adult charges for only the most serious crimes, such as murder and violent sexual assaults.

Animal cruelty cases such as Nelson’s are no longer eligible for adult prosecution.

The pending changes earlier this year to juvenile law were a factor in prosecutors’ decision to offer probation in a plea agreement, Hautzinger has said.

“I have been far more concerned about trying to make sure he comes out of this with an adult felony conviction that stays with him for life than I have been about how many days in jail he winds up doing,” Hautzinger told The Daily Sentinel in June.

Allegedly drunk in court

Nelson’s more recent interactions with law enforcement, while awaiting resolution of the animal cruelty case, underscore concerns about his ability to follow court orders, Deputy District Attorney Jason Conley said.

Nelson was arrested after his June 22 court hearing after showing up in Gurley’s courtroom intoxicated, registering a .051 blood-alcohol content, Conley said. All totaled, Nelson allegedly tested positive for alcohol three times in violation of bail-bond conditions.

Nelson has been held at the Mesa County Jail since his most recent arrest Sept. 4.


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