By Joe Johnson
An Athens-Clarke County grand jury recently returned a four-count indictment charging two University of Georgia students with multiple counts of aggravated animal cruelty for allegedly beating to death an opossum five months ago.
The indictment was filed in Superior Court on March 22, three months after the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office filed an accusation that charged 21-year-old Leighton Coleman Clements and 19-year-old Luke Colter Law with one count each of aggravated animal cruelty.
DA Deborah Gonzalez did not respond to a message requesting an explanation for why the case was presented to the grand jury after her office had already charged the students.
However, the indictment states that the two additional felony cruelty charges allege that the students seriously disfigured the opossum's head and eye by beating it with a stick, and for inflicting severe pain on the animal.
The indictment also added the misdemeanor charge of hunting with an unlawful weapon, a reference to the stick.
According to a University of Georgia Police Department incident report, two officers were on patrol just before 2 a.m. on Oct. 26 when they saw Clements and Law in the entrance to the parking lot at the Lamar Dodd School of Art’s Thomas Street Art Complex, with Clements using a large stick to beat a small animal on the ground.
Clements threw down the stick and both students began walking away upon seeing the approaching patrol car, and as the car passed the parking lot’s entrance, the officers could see the animal “was still flailing about,” according to the report.
The officers got out of their car and told the students to sit on a curb so they could conduct an investigation, the report noted.
One of the officers wrote in the report that the students were detained on the belief “they were committing cruelty to animals by causing physical pain, suffering, or death by an unjustified act to the animal.”
Clements admitted to beating the opossum, and both students said Law never struck it but was present during the incident.
According to the report, the students said they were from South Georgia and “they know a lot about opossums” and believed the one they killed had rabies from the way it was behaving. Clements reportedly said the animal was limping and made a hissing noise at him and so he struck it in the neck with the stick, “then decided to put it out of its misery, so he began beating it to kill it” to protect himself and others.
When the students asked one of the officers what he would have done if a rabid opossum approached him, the officer responded that opossums cannot carry rabies due to their body temperature, according to the police report.
Officers later reviewed video footage from an area surveillance camera, which reportedly showed images that were at odds with the students' account of the incident.
“The camera footage showed the opossum never advanced towards Clements or Law before Clements struck it with the stick,” one of the officers wrote in the report. “Clements maliciously chased, cornered and beat the opossum with a large stick. Law maliciously chased and cornered the opossum while Clements beat it. While Clements was maliciously beating the opossum to death one of the opossum’s eyes was dislodged from its socket.”
The students, who had been released from jail on their own recognizance, are scheduled to be arraigned on the indictment on May 18.