For one hour Tuesday afternoon a federal judge seemed to flirt with giving prison time to a nationally known walking horse trainer but by the end of the hearing balked and sentenced the man to three years probation and a $75,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice appeared conflicted and questioned a plea agreement between federal prosecutors and attorneys calling for probation for defendant Jackie McConnell, 60.
"Tell me why I should accept this agreement which basically constrains me," Mattice demanded of prosecutor Steve Neff. "If I accept it, I'm bound by one provision -- whether he should receive imprisonment."
As Neff talked about McConnell being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mattice quipped: "Certainly [he was] while those hidden cameras were running."
McConnell, a Collierville, Tenn., trainer once named trainer of the year in Shelbyville, Tenn., sat at the defense table biting his lip.
Aside from the specter of jail, he had faced up to five years' probation and a possible fine of $250,000 for "horse soring" -- the chemical or mechanical abuse of a horse's feet to alter its gait to win coveted walking horse competitions. He had pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, a felony.
When the sentence finally was reached, McConnell, 60, appeared relieved.
But some left the courtroom with mixed feelings.
Keith Dane, equine protection director of the Humane Society of the United States, and former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, R-Md., the author of the Horse Protection Act which criminalized soring more than 40 years ago, stood on the courthouse steps and praised McConnell's prosecution.
But they said the weak sentence should motivate Americans to push for passage in Congress of the Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012, a bill introduced last week to strengthen the law.
"I imagine there will be a lot of reaction in the public to this sentence today," Dane said. "The way to fix it is to toughen the Horse Protection Act."
Last week, two congressmen from Tennessee and Kentucky introduced legislation to end the use of chains, most pads and the industry's self-policing. The Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012 also would make soring a felony and toughen penalties.
U.S. Attorneys Bill Killian and Neff have complained about the law, its low-level penalties and lack of enforcement since first taking on the McConnell case after U.S. Department of Agriculture special agent Julie McMillan brought evidence to them and asked for their help.
The McConnell case and a separate 2011 case were the first criminal prosecutions of the act in 40 years, according to Killian and Tydings.
Tydings urged Tennesseans to call or write their congressmen and seize the moment of public consciousness to help push through the amendments.
"It's a scofflaw down here," he said of the present act. "They laugh at the law, and the 'big lick' gait is a bastardized gait. We need [Sen. Lamar] Alexander to step up and support the bill, and we need [Rep. Scott] DesJarlais to stop harassing the U.S. Department of Agriculture by trying to get the department to stop enforcing the law."
DesJarlais has written to the department complaining about inspections at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration last month. Alexander has said he will review the proposed amendment.
On Tuesday, the industry's reform group, the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, commended McConnell's sentencing and reaffirmed the industry's commitment to healthy horses.
"Those who abuse horses should be held accountable and we hope that today's sentencing sends a message to those who hurt horses that this type of activity will not be tolerated," said spokeswoman Jane Lynch Crain.
In the courtroom Tuesday, attorneys for both sides argued why the judge should accept the plea agreement, and Mattice pointed out the rare type of that agreement, which only allowed for probation and not prison time.
The judge had to either accept or reject the agreement as written. In most cases a federal judge has latitude to sentence defendants within the defined ranges. In some instances judges may "depart" either up or down on the ranges.
Mattice did accept the agreement -- even with no prison time for McConnell.
Had the judge rejected the plea deal, McConnell could have withdrawn his plea and either negotiated a new deal or gone to trial.
Defense attorneys declined requests for a brief comment from McConnell, and they slipped him out of the courthouse through a door away from cameras.
The remaining charges in the 52-count indictment were dismissed as part of his plea deal.
Mattice sentenced McConnell's co-defendants Joseph Abernathy, 30, and Jeff Dockery, 54, to one year of probation each. Both men pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor related to horse soring.