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Nevada Supreme Court hears case of deadly dog attack

Onion Dog Supreme Court

City of Henderson / AP

This May 9, 2013, photo provided by the city of Henderson shows Onion, a mastiff-Rhodesian ridgeback mix, at the Henderson Animal Care and Control Facility.

Updated Wednesday, July 3, 2013 | 3:21 p.m.

CARSON CITY — A woman whose dog killed her grandson was in duress when she signed papers relinquishing ownership of the dog to animal control officers as paramedics tried to save the boy, an attorney for an animal rescue group told the Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Attorneys for the city of Henderson countered that the rescue group lacks standing in the case and that the dog, a 120-pound mastiff-Rhodesian ridgeback mix, is now owned by the city and should be destroyed.

Justices will decide whether the animal rescue group, the New York-based Lexus Project, can make an ownership claim to the dog and seek to have it sent to a sanctuary in Colorado instead of being put to death. A ruling will come at a later date.

Elizabeth Keller signed papers turning her dog — named Onion — over to Henderson animal control officers on April 27, 2012, just after the dog had attacked her 1-year-old grandson.

But Richard Rosenthal, attorney and co-founder of the Lexus Project, said Keller was emotionally traumatized as paramedics attended to her grandson. She didn't understand the ramifications of signing the papers or her right to appeal a declaration that the dog was vicious, he said.

Keller later signed an affidavit saying she wanted the rescue group to have the dog, but a lower court judge rejected Lexus Project's efforts to intervene, saying it lacked standing. The group has established a trust for the dog and argues it is acting on the dog's behalf.

Brandon Kemble, assistant Henderson city attorney, said a District Court hearing was held in May of last year on a temporary restraining order seeking to postpone the dog's death. The Lexus Project didn't obtain Keller's affidavit until the next day and then asked the judge to reconsider her decision, which was denied.

Chief Justice Kris Pickering, who disclosed in documents that she contributes to animal welfare groups, suggested the affidavit could be viewed as new evidence.

Under questioning by justices, Kemble said Keller or the Lexus Project should have gone through an administrative process if they wanted to challenge the city's ownership of the dog.

But Justice James Hardesty said the city's ordinance providing for hearings before the Animal Advisory Committee only pertains to challenges of when an animal is declared vicious.

"The point is, neither Ms. Keller nor the Project had the ability to contest ownership under the ordinance," he said.

Kemble countered that still didn't absolve them of seeking administrative remedies.

Rosenthal said Keller adopted the dog as a 4-week-old puppy. The dog, he said, helped her overcome depression as she endured chemotherapy to treat lung cancer.

He said the dog had never exhibited any type of aggression before that tragic day when the toddler fell on the sleeping dog's head in a darkened room and lifted himself up by the dog's ears. The startled dog grabbed the boy and shook him. The boy suffered severe head and face injuries and died.

Kemble said the dog is kept in a double-wide cage 24-hours a day and is seen five times a week by a veterinarian. He said the veterinarian reports the dog is doing well, "But unfortunately he is still unpredictable."

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