Anyone who is a semi-regular reader of this newspaper had already made up his or her mind in the so-called Misdemeanor of the Century, the Sheriff vs. The Sennes, long before the final court rulings were reported this week.
Those who backed Sheriff Alex Hodge were supporting a politician for professional or personal reasons; those who supported the Sennes were basing their decision on principle.
In this case, principle won … which, sadly, is becoming a rarity. Power and politics rule most days. Principle is an underdog (no pun intended).
The criminal charges against Col. David and Mary Ellen Senne were dropped in Jones County Justice Court and the Jones County Circuit Court awarded them $5,000 — the maximum they could get — in the civil claim for their five household dogs that were wrongfully seized by the sheriff’s department and the Humane Society.
It was the best possible outcome for the Sennes. You’ve read many times now about how the Purple Heart recipient and his wife were humiliated by being strip-searched then paraded in front of the media — the treatment that’s usually reserved for suspects in the most serious crimes, like murder, rape, child molestation and robbery.
You know that the Sennes took in the pets that had been deemed “unadoptable” by SCAR, so the shelter could maintain its “no-kill” status and make room for new rescues. You know that Mrs. Senne accused the folks at SCAR of turning on her when she brought up the idea of funding a shelter in Ellisville. That would have cut into SCAR’s funding since the town paid for each animal it sent to SCAR.
And you know that affidavits from some of the very SCAR volunteers who took animals to the Sennes’ refuge on Lyon Ranch Road were used to get the search warrant that allowed the sheriff’s department and Humane Society to raid the property in July 2018.
You also know that this wasn’t about rescuing animals as much as it was about stroking egos and publicity. If the dire condition of the 89 animals was the main concern, it wouldn’t have taken almost two months from the time SCAR officials gathered evidence until the raid.
Hodge wanted to be hailed a hero. It’s that simple. When he learned that the Sennes could only be charged with a misdemeanor, he wanted to push for tougher animal cruelty laws … and take the credit, of course. That’s a cause we could have gotten behind, of course. We have a long history of being reasonable animal advocates, thanks to the reporting of Sean Murphy.
SCAR would have never become the organization that it is today without Murph’s support. He went out and covered just about every rescue and cause it had, and the donations poured in. When you look at the fate of Murph and the Sennes, it appears that SCAR has a habit of doing what its rescues would be less likely to do — bite the hands that feed them.
Hodge did the same thing. After more than a decade of almost 100 percent positive coverage from this paper, he went off the rails when we reported on and showed receipts for thousands of dollars of pet food the Sennes had purchased. Instead of just accepting it as responsible reporting, the sheriff took to his beloved Facebook and came after us as “biased” and suggested that he or one of his cronies may start a “real home-town newspaper.” He then cut us off — the only real home-town media source on the county — from getting information from his department.
He wanted a war, so we gave him one. We are a battle-tested bunch, believe me.
Hodge thought he had the support of the people. But once again, principle prevailed. Hodge lost his bid for a fourth term after political newcomer Macon Davis got 58 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.
For those who were on the Hodge train, you should know that once he lost, that’s when he agreed to settle with the Sennes. There was no need to pretend to fight any more. From the first ruling that Judge Dal Williamson made questioning the constitutionality of the search warrant and other aspects of the raid, his attorneys saw the direction it was going. All of the motions and appeals and other classic stall techniques were to avoid getting the case kicked before the primary. If Hodge had managed to win then and make it to the Nov. 5 General Election against Independent Joe Berlin, you better believe that some other legal delay would be in the works right now.
My motive isn’t to boast or pound our chest. It’s to make the point that principle and justice scored victories in this case. While Hodge and his multimillion-dollar political and business supporters were behind him, an independent paper and an independent former prosecutor were pushing back.
Hodge wanted to be the hero in the case. But the real hero is J. Ronald Parrish. He took his nominal fee to represent the Sennes in the criminal case in Jones County Justice Court … then he began to dive deep into the case file and found that his clients’ five personal pets had been taken, even though there was a document and a video (taken by Murph’s wife Michelle) that explicitly said those dogs wouldn’t be taken. He made that the focal point of the case and went to work. He filed more than 700 pages with some arguments and points that had to have made his opponents’ heads spin. He won in circuit court. He won in the state Supreme Court.
Parrish is known for his plainspokenness and passion, but behind that Southern drawl is a brilliant legal mind. Working from his home in Calhoun, pup by his side and donkeys grazing in his pasture, he took on six attorneys from powerful law firms — three in Hodge’s camp and three in the Humane Society’s camp. William Allen of Brookhaven is counsel for the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, as well as the Mississippi Supervisors Association Insurance Trust and the Mississippi School Board Association. Phelps Dunbar has more than 270 lawyers in 11 offices from Texas to Florida, even London.
The small-statured Parrish and the little-paper-that-could took down a pair of giants. But we both had the same partners to help us score the victory — Truth and Principle. Here’s hoping they continue to prevail.