By Joe Johnson
Two University of Georgia students this week were formally charged in court with aggravated animal cruelty for allegedly beating to death an opossum three months ago.
The felony charges are in an accusation that was filed Thursday in Clarke County Superior Court by the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office.
According to the charging document, on Oct. 26 Leighton Coleman Clements, 21, and Luke Colter Law, 19, “did unlawfully and maliciously cause the death of an animal, an opossum, by chasing said opossum and beating it with a stick.”
The alleged incident was documented with more details in a UGA police report, which indicated that two officers were on patrol just before 2 a.m. Oct. 26 on Mitchell Street 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.”
The officers identified the animal as a deceased opossum.
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 disputed the student’s 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 were allowed to leave the scene, but after officers reviewed the video, arrest warrants were issued, charging both students with felony aggravated cruelty to animals.
The students surrendered themselves at the Clarke County Jail on Oct. 28 and were each subsequently released on their own recognizance.
They are scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 9.