Mother Indicted for Homicide After Pit Bull Kills Son

Melissa Miller, 24, of Caldwell County, Texas, has been indicted for negligently inflicted homicide (also known in some states as manslaughter) and felonious injury to a child. The charges stem from the death of her son, Tyson Miller, who was 28 months old. The boy was left unsupervised for several hours, during which time he approached a chained pit bull belonging to a third party. The dog killed him. (See the article.)

I feel that these charges raise serious and difficult questions about responsibly for dog attacks. Let’s assume, for the purpose of argument, that this mother knew that a pit bull was chained or tethered outside the mobile home where she was staying. Let us also assume that she had no reason to think that her son was adequately confined. The issue is whether she had the requisite degree of knowledge that the chained or tethered pit bull presented a significant danger to her son. If the prosecutor cannot prove some knowledge of this danger, it is doubtful that Ms. Miller could be convicted of these crimes.

The State of Texas allows dog owners to chain or tether their dogs for an indefinite period of time, because doing so is not forbidden or even frowned upon. Behaviorists and knowledgeable dog owners have known for at least a decade, however, that chaining or tethering makes dogs vicious toward people. (See Why Dogs Bite People on DogBiteLaw.com.) So Texas itself has made at least one mistake here: by allowing the practice to continue, the State has failed to educate people like Ms. Miller that a chained or tethered pit bull presents a significant danger.

If that is the case, how will the State (represented by this prosecutor) show that this mother knew something that the State itself either refuses to accept or has kept more or less secret — namely that chained or tethered pit bulls are extremely, extremely dangerous? How can the requisite degree of knowledge be proved when the State itself seems to be ignorant about the extreme danger of chaining or tethering this or any other type of dog?