A Salem man was sentenced to two years in jail on Wednesday, after admitting to punching and stabbing a kitten to death in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day last January.
Peter Rice, 44, who lived at 37 Cabot St. prior to his arrest, pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty and carrying a dangerous weapon (a spring-loaded type knife) during a hearing in Salem Superior Court Wednesday.
Rice and his then-girlfriend were watching the black and white “tuxedo” kitten, named “J.T.,” for their neighbor, a single mom who was away on vacation with her children, at the time.
He later told police he was “wasted” and playing video games when the kitten scratched him.
Rice reacted by punching the kitten, which began suffering convulsions, he told police. That’s when he took out the first of two knives and stabbed the kitten in the heart and then in the head, leaving the second knife stuck in the creature’s skull.
Then — in what his lawyer later suggested was a call for help — Rice photographed the kitten and sent a message to a friend in Western Massachusetts that included the picture.
The friend contacted Salem police. When officers arrived, Rice initially denied knowing about a cat. His then-girlfriend told police she had been looking for the kitten all morning.
Rice later confessed he had punched and killed the kitten, then had hidden it under some leaves in a barrel on Gardner Street.
Prosecutor Lynsey Legier said “J.T.” died primarily from blunt force trauma.
She asked Judge Thomas Drechsler to send Rice to state prison for two to three years.
Rice’s attorney, who had filed a sentencing memorandum, has pointed to his client’s history of post-traumatic stress due to his Marines service; Rice said he was part of a recovery crew after Black Hawk Down in Somalia and was traumatized by what he saw.
Records that Rice provided to the court during earlier proceedings indicated he had spent limited time outside of the United States and his account of serving in Somalia could not be confirmed.
“It is a very serious case,” said Drechsler. “A poor, defenseless animal was killed.”
The judge said he was taking Rice’s military service and his cooperation in helping find the kitten’s remains into account, though “that doesn’t excuse his offense.”
The two-year jail sentence, which, the judge said, exceeds state sentencing guidelines, will be followed by three years of probation, during which Rice will be required to submit to random tests for alcohol and drugs, which he’s forbidden from using, undergo mental health and substance abuse evaluations, not possess or be a caretaker of any animals, stay away from the kitten’s owner and away from his former girlfriend, and take an online animal safety class called Benchmark Animal Rehabilitative Curriculum (BARC).
If he complies with all of those conditions and stays out of further trouble, he can seek early termination of that probation after two years.
Because the sentence is to a house of correction instead of prison, Rice will be eligible for parole in a little more than a month from now, after receiving credit for the 324 days he’s been held in custody awaiting trial.
Legier dropped a number of domestic abuse charges against Rice following the hearing, saying prosecutors were unable to proceed in that case.
© 2019 The Salem News
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