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Lunsford pleads no contest to one count of animal cruelty

More than 16 months after animal cruelty allegations were filed against Haywood resident James Lunsford, justice has finally been served. 

“We’re pleased with the judgement,” said Gina Zachary-Doan, executive director of animal welfare group Hope for Horses. “I feel like the amount of time that the state put into this case before it went to court at each continuance shows their commitment to prosecute these types of cases.”

Lunsford pled no contest to one count of animal cruelty, a Class 1 misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of up to 120 days in the county jail. Because Lunsford entered a PJC (Prayer for Judgement Continued), he won’t end up behind bars unless he violates another law — any law — within 12 months. 

“A Prayer for Judgement Continued is an older mechanism in law available to most citizens,” said Assistant District Attorney Jake Phelps, who handled the case. In essence, it means that he has to cooperate with animal control authorities and maintain a clean record. Lunsford must also check in with the court near the end of the year. 

In November 2019, a number of animal welfare groups including Hope for Horses, Animal Haven of Asheville and 4 Love of Animals became concerned after reports that Lunsford was neglecting animals in his care at his Haywood County farm. Shocking photos show a number of horses with open wounds, their ribs visible due to malnourishment. 

That same month, Lunsford was issued a summons for four counts of intentional deprivation of sustenance to horses named Cookie, Granny, Spice and Pumpkin, as well as two more counts alleging the same intentional deprivation of sustenance to a cow named Blue Bell as well as six pigs.

Lunsford maintained that he was operating as a rescue and had received many of the animals in poor condition. He also stated that animal rights groups were targeting him so he could be used as their “poster child” for fundraising efforts. 

Zachary-Doan had nothing but praise for District Attorney Ashley Welch’s office, and the prosecutor Phelps. 

“He was great. He took a lot of time to go over every detail of what the plea consisted of with everyone, with every witness, with people that were involved in the case from Hope for Horses, from Animal Haven and from animal services or animal control,” Zachary-Doan said. “He made sure that we all understood it and were in agreement. I just think that speaks volumes about the District Attorney’s office that he took that much time, just in this case in particular.”

Phelps expressed confidence in the plea decision, and pledged vigilance as Lunsford progresses through the next 12 months. 

“If he harms another animal again,” Phelps said, “I’m certain Ms. Welch will not let that go, and neither will I.”

— By Cory Vaillancourt

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