Friday, May 18, 2001

Cat killer ordered to get psych tests
Judge says animal rights groups are out of line


By Nathan Crabbe
Register Staff Writer

NAPA - The judge who will sentence a man convicted of torching a cat told animal rights activists their letter writing campaign demanding he give the maximum punishment is inappropriate.

Martin Paul Berg, 40, will be sent to San Quentin prison for psychological tests before returning to Napa for sentencing. Berg pleaded no contest last month to felony animal cruelty for bashing a cat with a flashlight and setting it on fire.

Before making the testing order at a Thursday hearing, Judge W. Scott Snowden told the dozen or so activists in the courtroom they should stop directly lobbying him.

"It's unfortunate people don't know how inappropriate it is," Snowden said.

Snowden said he has received dozens of letters from throughout the United States and Canada. He directed District Attorney Gary Lieberstein to answer the letters and explain that he could not consider them in sentencing Berg.

Snowden also disclosed that he had contributed money to and adopted pets from one of the lobbying groups, the We Care animal shelter of St. Helena.

Deputy Public Defender Mervin Lernhart reserved the right to object later to the letters as having an improper influence, though he said he believes Snowden is a fair judge.

"It sometimes is difficult to put aside something once you've read it," Lernhart said.

He took issue with Lieberstein's suggestion that activists instead write to the probation department.

"A criminal case should be based on the law and not on the political objectives of various pressure groups," he said.

Berg hit the cat while delivering pizzas on Jan. 5, later pouring charcoal starter on the animal and setting it on fire. He faces a maximum of three years, eight months in prison.

The court also has the option of ordering him to serve five years felony probation and pay up to $40,000 in fines.

Leroy Moyer, director of the Walnut Creek-based Voices For Pets, said the group's petition drive has gathered more than 8,000 signatures. The petition calls for Berg to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Moyer said judges in other cases in which the group has been involved have accepted such petitions and letters without problems.

"The judge had total discretion," he said.

In addition to the activists, Berg's mother and several of her elderly friends attended the hearing. After it ended, the group concurred that they agreed with the judge's admonishment of letter writers and believed he was fairly conducting the case.

Lieberstein said he has never dealt with a case such as this, so has nothing by which to compare the appropriateness of the letter-writing campaign. He did say he agreed with Snowden's statement in court.
"The judge did exactly what judicial ethics require," he said.

Moyer, of Voices For Pets, objected to the judge's suggestion that the activists' letters could not be considered in sentencing because none are the actual owners of the cat, which was a stray.
"We are all victims," he said.

Cris Kelly, who is spearheading local petition efforts, said she doesn't believe the campaign will adversely affect the case by giving Berg a chance to appeal.

Kelly said the alternative would be for outraged citizens to be silent, which goes against their free-speech rights.

"A lot of us just want an outlet to be heard somewhere," she said.

[Nathan Crabbe can be reached as 707-256-2260 or ncrabbe@napanews.com]