Dangerous dog off death row in Virginia, but Niko’s future unclear

It’s been seven years since a Virginia woman was convicted of owning a dangerous dog, which killed a cat. One of the conditions of the owner staying out of jail was for the dog, named Niko, to be euthanized.

Seven years later, Niko is still alive, and now off death row, but Virginia’s Court of Appeals has ruled against the woman’s argument to have the sentence thrown out.

Niko had been condemned to be euthanized, but seven years later, he’s still alive and living at a no-kill shelter. (Courtesy Toni Sue Stacey)

In August 2015, Toni Sue Stacey was convicted in Albemarle County Circuit Court for owning a dangerous dog. Niko, a Staffordshire terrier — a pit bull-type of dog — had killed a neighbor’s cat.

The judge sentenced Stacey to 90 days in jail, but suspended all of it, with the conditions that Stacey be of good behavior, and that Niko would be euthanized. Stacey’s partner, Audrey Wells, is the dog’s co-owner.

However, after years of appeals, in several state courts, including the Supreme Court of Virginia, Niko remains alive at the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA — a no-kill shelter. A Facebook group, Save NIKO, has voiced support for the animal.

In the years since Stacey was originally convicted, her attorneys were successful in arguing that “while a circuit court may order a dangerous dog’s disposal,” state code “grants the local animal control officer discretion regarding which disposal method to use — euthanasia being only one of the available options.”

Within the state code, “disposal” can include a dog living with a shelter or agency willing to register and house the animal.

Under her original 2015 conviction, the maximum sentence Stacey faced for owning a dangerous dog, a Class 2 misdemeanor, was six months in jail.

In her most recent case in the Virginia Court of Appeals, Stacey argued the state no longer had the jurisdiction to order Niko be “disposed of,” since the maximum sentence she could have faced for her conviction had long since passed.

This week, a three-judge panel disagreed.

“Trial courts have the authority to order the euthanization of a vicious dog,” the court wrote in its opinion dated April 19. “But here, the trial court’s May 21, 2021 order instructed ‘disposal’ rather than euthanization of Niko.”

Judge Junius Fulton III wrote in the opinion that the May 2021 order “has the effect of granting Stacey the very relief she requested — the ‘disposal’ rather than the euthanasia of Niko.”

Fulton said Stacey’s appeal is “an impermissible collateral attack” on her 2015 conviction, and acceptance of the offer to stay out of jail.

“The trial court acted within its authority pursuant to statute and Stacey received the relief she had requested at the trial court level. We find that Stacey is bound by her prior position of assent to the trial court’s ordered disposal of Niko and find that the present appeal is without merit,” wrote Fulton.

Contacted by WTOP about possible appeals, Stacey’s attorney Elliott Harding, of Charlottesville, remained upbeat.

“We’re in communication with local animal control now, and am hopeful they’ll let him go, knowing that euthanization isn’t required. Whether he can return to Toni or Audrey remains unseen but there’s definitely an opportunity for him to have another chance,” Harding said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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