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PIT-BULL OWNER CONVICTED OF MANSLAUGHTER

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The owner of a fight-trained pit bull terrier was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Friday by a Superior Court jury that said he was responsible when his dog attacked and killed a child.

The jury rejected the second-degree murder charge against Michael Patrick Berry, the first person in the nation to be charged with murder because his pet killed a human, and instead convicted him of the lesser charge.Berry, who hung his head as the jury delivered its verdict, also was convicted of owning a mischievous animal and cultivating marijuana. Both are felonies.

The panel of seven women and five men deliberated 11/2 days before returning the verdict.

A Feb. 14 sentencing date was set, and Berry faces up to four years in prison.

Berry, 40, a burly former county maintenance worker, fought back tears after the verdict and said in a hoarse whisper that the charges were "ridiculous."

Berry was portrayed by the prosecution as a dog fighting aficionado who owned and trained numerous pit bulls to be so vicious they would battle to death.

His 53-pound pit bull named Willy attacked and killed 2-year-old James Soto on June 13, 1987, when the 30-pound tot wandered near the dog's 6-foot chain. Prosecutors said the dog guarded a marijuana patch allegedly belonging to Berry.

"Willy may as well have been a gun cocked, loaded, aimed and ready to fire - with a 6-foot trip spring," prosecutor Dale Sanderson said during summations this week. "The predictability of that death is crystal clear based on the training of that dog."

Berry's defense attorney, Philip Pennypacker, argued that his client had taken reasonable precautions by chaining Willy on the side of a property jointly occupied by himself and the Soto family.

Berry had warned the boy's parents that the dog was dangerous and kept the animal chained and attached to a car axle staked into the ground, Pennypacker said.

A spokesman for the Human Society of the United States said Berry was the first pet owner in the nation to be charged with second-degree murder because of the actions of his pet.

Hayward Turnipseed of De Kalb County, Ga., was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison in 1987 after three of his pit bulls killed a 4-year-old boy, the spokesman said.