Montgomery County Judge Steven T. O'Neill determined Linda Muchnick, 57, formerly of East Bishopwood Boulevard and most recently of Pottstown, was not guilty by reason of insanity on multiple counts of animal cruelty and attempted cruelty to animals in connection with an August 2009 incident at her former home.
Specifically, O'Neill determined that at the time of the Aug. 20 incident, after which 12 of the 29 cats found in Muchnick's home died from complications of ingesting rat poison, was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented her from knowing what was right or wrong or understanding the consequences of her conduct.
Muchnick showed no emotion in court on Monday as the judge made the ruling.
O'Neill made the determination after hearing testimony and reading reports from psychiatrists who evaluated Muchnick while she was committed for a brief
period to the Montgomery County Emergency Services facility in Norristown after her arrest.
While Muchnick faces no further action under criminal laws, under a so-called civil commitment, the judge ordered Muchnick to continue with outpatient mental health treatment.
"You have to follow all of the treatment recommendations," O'Neill told Muchnick, advising her to focus on her mental health treatment at this time rather than trying to get the surviving animals returned to her.
The surviving 17 cats and one dog have been in the custody of the Montgomery County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals since the incident. Technically, now that she's been found not guilty of the crime, Muchnick could petition the court to have the animals returned to her.
"She hopes to get her animals back," defense lawyer Adam Katzman said on Muchnick's behalf after the hearing. "She's upset. She hopes for the best."
Assistant District Attorney Abby Silverman vowed to fight any attempt by Muchnick to regain custody of the animals. At that point, a separate evidentiary hearing would have to be held.
"Even though she was found not guilty by reason of insanity, her conduct still means she should not get these animals back," Silverman said.
The SPCA is currently in a holding pattern when it comes to the surviving animals and cannot put them up for adoption either until a judge, during a separate hearing, rules Muchnick can't have the animals or until Muchnick voluntarily relinquishes custody of the animals.
As of April 29, the SPCA has incurred $19,284 in expenses caring for the animals, according to Silverman.
The judge stopped short of predicting the future of animals in Muchnick's care. But referring to the Aug. 20 incident the judge said, "They are horrific acts against innocent animals. All they did was love her."
Muchnick allegedly told authorities she fed the animals rat poison because she faced financial problems.
Prosecutors called the case "sad" but said they had to charge Muchnick because she had other avenues in that she could have taken the cats to the S.P.C.A. or could have found alternative homes for them instead of allegedly choosing to put rat poison in their rooms where they had nothing else to eat.
Court papers indicate the investigation began about 1:20 p.m. Aug. 20 when Towamencin and Lower Salford police investigated a report that Muchnick notified the Harleysville Veterninary Clinic that she intended to kill herself and her collection of pets.
"In the note, Muchnick stated her building financial issues made her realize suicide was the only solution," police alleged in the arrest affidavit. "The note read Muchnick thought it would be best for her pets if she killed them along with herself so they could be in heaven together."
Towamencin police went to Muchnick's home to check on her well-being. Receiving no response from anyone inside the home, police entered the residence and found 29 cats inside two locked bedrooms. The temperature and humidity were high and there were no windows open in the rooms, police said.
Muchnick, conscious but incoherent, was found lying on the floor of a third, locked and poorly ventilated bedroom, along with a sickly pit bull dog, according to court documents.
During the investigation, authorities found animal food bowls that appeared to contain moldy food. However, on closer inspection, authorities realized the blue, moldy-looking substance was actually D-Con Rat Poison, according to the criminal complaint.
Police also found an open container of the rat poison in a dresser of the bedroom where Muchnick was discovered, according to court documents.
(Montgomery News - May 31, 2010)