Animal cruelty charges against a Harris, Minn., man who shot his neighbor's cat should have been brought before a jury at a trial instead of being dismissed by a judge, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The dismissal of charges against Mark D. Gerard was reversed and the case sent back to Chisago County District Court, after the three-member appellate court said that a jury should have been offered evidence to decide if Gerard's slaying of his neighbors' cat was legally justified over his claims that their pet was preying on his chickens and wild turkey poults on his property in a rural area west of Harris.

Last June 25, a Chisago County deputy was called to the home of the cat's owners. The white cat, wearing a collar and bell, appeared to have been shot with a shotgun, court records say. The cat was alive, but suffering from its severe wounds, and the couple asked the officer to dispatch the animal with his gun, which the deputy did.

When subsequently questioned by the deputy, Gerard admitted shooting the cat. But he also told the deputy the cat had been on his property many times and had killed one of his chickens, although he had not actually seen the cat prey on the birds.

Gerard was charged with one count of mistreating animals, a felony. Under Minnesota law, a person who intentionally harms or kills a pet or companion animal may be sentenced to up to two years in prison, pay a fine up to $5,000, or both.

At a hearing before the trial, Gerard's attorney moved to dismiss the case, arguing there was no evidence showing that his actions were unjustified. The motion was backed by an affidavit by the deputy that it was his opinion that the shooting was justified. Prosecutors argued that the issue of justification was a matter for a jury to decide, based on evidence.

Chisago County District Judge Todd Schoffelman dismissed the charges, ruling that the deputy's testimony would have exonerated Gerard, and that it would be unfair to put him on trial.

The Appeals Court disagreed, saying that relying on the deputy's opinion as evidence to justify Gerard's actions was improper.

"It is for the jury to hear the evidence presented by the parties, weigh the witnesses' credibility, and determine whether [Gerard] unjustifiably killed the cat," the Appeals Court said.

Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter said the ruling involves an important legal principle that ensures juries be given a chance to review evidence. Though the case involves serious animal cruelty charges, "that's not really the central point."

"It's our position that the court dismissed the case prematurely," Reiter said.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson