At precisely 4 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, former Maryland Senator Joseph Tydings noticeably tightened when Federal judge Sandy Mattice announced after a brief recess that he would accept a contentious plea agreement, thus assuring serial horse abuser Jackie McConnell would not go to jail. The sentence of three years of probation and a $75,000 fine would later be called “a travesty” by the 84-year-old legal expert who once served as a U.S. attorney for Maryland.
After all, it was Tydings himself who created the federal Horse Protection Act when he served as U.S. attorney for Maryland 43 years ago and today, although he sits ramrod straight and is still a skilled orator, Senator Tydings was the first to realize that the loathsome McConnell, in his brief and well-coached remarks of remorse, never once mentioned or apologized to the hundreds of horses he has purposely abused and tortured in a well-documented span of over 30 years.
The ruling, although just, dashed the hopes of “many, many hundreds” who had written Judge Mattice to ask for stronger justice. But because of woefully-inadequate federal laws against the depravity that has plagued the Walking Horse industry for well over half a century, the Horse Protection Act has been as lame as the horses it meant to protect and a plea arrangement was deemed at the very onset as the best “legal solution.”
Early in the sentencing session it seemed as though Judge Mattice was wrestling with the plea deal, claiming rightfully “it ties my hands,” but upon arguments from both the prosecutor and McConnell’s defense team, the judge relented, saying he was bound by law to make “legal judgments, not moral ones.” Then, as expected, Jackie McConnell walked away with his gleeful family rather than give Senator Tydings the satisfaction of witnessing the first jail term to be given since the bill was enacted in 1970.
Granted, McConnell’s sentence was the stiffest since federal prosecutors in Chattanooga became the first ever to enforce the Horse Protection Act last year. Earlier in the day two of Jackie’s henchmen, stable hand Jeff Dockery and farrier Joseph Abernathy, were each given sentences of one year on probation after it was learned they were paid underlings to the notorious scofflaw McConnell, who has now been “banned for life” from training horses by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and fined $150,000 by the agency.
It is no secret that for over a quarter century such bans and probation have meant absolutely nothing to McConnell, who has fearlessly entered maimed horses in shows under other “trainers” like the pitiful Dockery, a wizened man who appeared before the bench with no teeth, much less any self-respect. He said he worked for McConnell for 30 years and a rapt audience could only imagine what that meant.
Dockery’s cowed appearance alone lent credence to the belief that McConnell, from Collierville, has made hundreds of thousands by abusing people like his longtime stable worker as well as horses. “Yes sir, I sored horses for him and I’m sorry for it,” Dockery told the judge. The badly-broken Dockery and his family left the courtroom before McConnell’s case was called and neither man made eye contact as Dockery shuffled from the courtroom.
While Judge Mattice and others feel the USDA ban and the three-year probation will “make Jackie a changed man,” veteran observers of the embattled Tennessee Walking Horse industry are hardly as optimistic. Granted, McConnell is widely detested and quite reviled by both the public and the honest horsemen of the world but his entire life can be easily traced by violations and suspensions that were previously handled in a now-laughable way.
Remember, McConnell’s guilty plea was just for the first count – number two through the other 52 were summarily dismissed. And while Judge Mattice remarked that “just being a federal felon is big to me,” McConnell, purportedly a millionaire after a lifetime of ill-gotten gain, was given nine months to pay his $75,000 fine and – unbelievably -- allowed by the court to continue to buy and own horses that he can keep – and do whatever with -- in his infamous barn.
Face it; McConnell history alone makes him a serial abuser. Judge Mattice said he doesn’t believe horse abuse is addictive but psychological experts tell us greed and blood-lust may well be. While the court can neither examine a man’s past or his heart, Jackie has a fabled history of finding loopholes, ratholes and willing conspirators to achieve his passions.
Jackie’s brother, Jimmy, is a noted “Big Lick” trainer with a history of violations and the deeply-sullied “performance” industry -– centered in Shelbyville – is believed to still be rife with similar rascals who change horse’s names, enter them under pseudo trainers such as the gullible Dockery, and have made soring and torture almost a given in the quest for the unnatural high gait and cheap blue ribbon.
While the judge made several remarks about a notorious tape that has now been seen the world over of McConnell viciously and sadistically attacking tethered animals, Tuesday’s sentencing was actually for a felony crime committed before the ABC News “Nightline” tape enraged horse lovers around the globe. McConnell still faces 14 counts for that episode later this month after they were brought by state agents who raided his barn and found chilling evidence the Federal Court was unable to present.
Then again, as scurrilous as McConnell may well be, representatives of the state and national Humane Society and the USDA who attended the sentencing, believe Jackie is a minor figure in the perverted world of the “Big Lick.” The bigger goal is to prosecute the owners who allow the barbaric “stewarding,” as well as those who enable soring and other abuse to badly plague the noble and beautiful breed of defenseless animals.
Leaders of the Shelbyville crowd were conspicuously absent from the sentencing but after its fiery attacks on the Humane Society, the USDA, and any other group clamoring for reform, the defiant stance against government and its agents was well noted.
Bill Killian, the U.S. Attorney, promised there will be others who will be brought to trial. “We will continue to investigate and prosecute cases involving violations of the Horse Protection Act as we do in other areas of federal law. The impact in these cases has been far beyond any level that we might have imagined,” he said.
Last week tougher legislation was introduced in Congress and, with Tennessee’s senators both blanching at the state’s regretful notoriety since Jackie’s video went viral in May, there is a push in the state legislature as well as in Washington to make sure that future perpetrators of the Horse Protection Act don’t skate like Jackie McConnell did in Chattanooga yesterday afternoon.