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Hibbing man who shot neighbor's dogs gets probation

A rural Hibbing man who shot two of his neighbor's dogs was sentenced Thursday to two years probation and will lose his rights to own or possess a firearm and to vote after a judge refused to reduce his offense from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.

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A rural Hibbing man who shot two of his neighbor's dogs was sentenced Thursday to two years probation and will lose his rights to own or possess a firearm and to vote after a judge refused to reduce his offense from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.

A St. Louis County jury last month found Donald R. Niemi, 55, guilty of two counts of mistreatment of a pet animal. Jurors rejected Niemi's defense that he was justified in shooting the dogs because they were attacking his pet collie in his yard. One neighbor dog was killed -- the felony offense -- and one injured, a misdemeanor.

The maximum penalty for the felony is two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. However, under Minnesota sentencing guidelines it is presumed that Niemi would receive a probationary sentence because of his lack of a criminal record. Public defender Cindy Evenson told the court that Niemi lost his job as an over-the-road trucker as a result of the felony conviction.

Scott Davis, whose family owned the two dogs that were shot, addressed the court before Niemi was sentenced. He said the dogs were considered a part of his family. The 14-month-old shepherd-collie mix named Rider that Niemi killed belonged to Davis' daughter, Chelsea, a sophomore at Northern Michigan University.

"The impact this event has had on our lives has been substantial," Scott Davis told the court. "The emotional distress was severe because of the loss of a dog, and because of the way the animals were injured and killed. I am certain that Donald Niemi knew for sure that we were the owners of the dogs. ... We feel this makes his crimes even more heinous."

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Niemi told the court that he had no idea the dogs belonged to his neighbors. He thought they were strays, he said. "I feel bad they happened to be their dogs, but my dog was attacked," he said. "I didn't know where the dogs came from."

Niemi declined comment when approached outside the courtroom after the sentencing.

Evenson told the court that her client was remorseful. Another mitigating factor, Evenson said, was that the dogs were the aggressors by coming onto Niemi's property where he said he was protecting his dog.

Judge Sally Tarnowski denied Evenson's request to reduce the felony to a gross misdemeanor. Tarnowski said the court is not permitted to consider a defendant's work situation to render a lesser sentence.

However, Niemi was granted a stay of imposition of sentence. If he complies with the conditions of his two-year probation, the felony conviction on his record will then be reduced to a misdemeanor.

Tarnowski fined Niemi $50 and ordered him to pay a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution to the Davises and to perform 50 hours of community service in an animal shelter or similar setting. He also was ordered to have no same or similar conduct.

MARK STODGHILL covers public safety and courts. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5333 or by e-mail at mstodghill@duluthnews.com .

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