In what had been described as a potential landmark case involving Minnesota's first-ever felony charges over alleged starvation of horses, a Swift County judge rescinded those charges Monday, citing a lack of evidence that cruelty by the owners caused the horse's death.
Despite the ruling by Judge David Mennis, three members of an Appleton, Minn., family still face misdemeanor charges of cruelty and depriving their horses of food.
But Joann Dokken, 60, Leroy Dokken, 64, and their son Michael Dokken, 36, no longer face two years in jail and $5,000 in fines in the death of one of their horses last summer.
When Swift County deputies went to the farm June 30, they found a horse described as "just bones and hide" that "appeared to have been dead for some time," according to court documents.
Three other horses were found alive, but with protruding ribs, hips and spines, and they were missing hair, according to the documents. The horses had apparently been without care for some time, the documents said.
Leroy Dokken told the Star Tribune on Monday that the deceased horse "was fine in the evening and in the morning it was dead."
In court, Michael Dokken had said the horse died from eating particleboard. Joann Dokken said that the animal died from getting snow in its nose.
In his ruling, Mennis said that to establish probable cause for a felony charge, it would have to be proven that the owners' cruelty caused the horse's death. He concluded the Dokkens do not know how the horse died and that they weren't there.
"This is a little disappointing," said Dr. Kathleen Jost, a veterinarian who had predicted the Dokken case would be a landmark case in Minnesota.
Said Keith Streff, a Humane Society investigator who was with deputies when they went to the farm last June: "I'm disappointed because there was evidence to show that the horse died a slow and inhumane death."
Earlier this month, an East Bethel ranch owner was charged with 35 gross misdemeanors alleging cruelty to 17 malnourished horses that were seized by authorities. An initial hearing for Lowell Friday is scheduled next month in Anoka County court.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419