Mercy Carrion greeted the officers who arrived at her Loudoun County home in April to investigate a report of animal cruelty in a blood-soaked white shirt, according to testimony at her trial Wednesday.
Blood was smeared around the doorway of the home, a large knife was found next to the kitchen sink, and the decapitated bodies of two roosters were discovered in a filing cabinet, officers told a judge.
Despite the grisly scene, Carrion, 43, of Sterling, Va., argued in Loudoun County Court on Wednesday that the animal cruelty charges brought against her violated her First Amendment right to freedom of religion. She is a priestess in the Afro-Caribbean religion of Santeria, whose practitioners sometimes offer animal sacrifices.
“I tried to explain to [the officer] you offered the bodies of the animals to the saints,” Carrion told the court through a Spanish interpreter. “There are elders in my church, and I was instructed to do this.”
A Loudoun County prosecutor sidestepped the religious issue, arguing that Carrion could sacrifice the birds, but she flouted Virginia law by failing to care for them beforehand and then slaughtering them in an inhumane way.
“She has a right to practice her religion,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alexandra Hazel said in her closing argument. “She deprived these animals of food, water and shelter and then cruelly killed them.”
A judge ultimately sided with the prosecutor, convicting Carrion of three misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, but not before an unusual trial played out that featured testimony about a rooster autopsy, or necropsy, and an expert on religions of the African diaspora.
Loudoun County animal control officers testified that they were called to Carrion’s home on April 25 for a report of animal cruelty. They found three roosters in feces- and urine-soaked beer boxes in Carrion’s basement. One officer said the birds could not properly move in the boxes.
Officers returned the next day at 1 a.m. to serve a search warrant on Carrion’s home and found her in the bloody shirt. Carrion testified that she killed the birds just before officers knocked on her door because she wanted to follow through on the sacrifice.
Santeria is a religion that combines elements of Catholicism, West African religious beliefs and the traditions of the indigenous people of the Americas. It is often practiced by the descendants of slaves brought to the Americas.
The officers testified that they found no evidence of food for the roosters in the house and that Carrion told them that the roosters she had killed had died over the course of three to five minutes, a period Hazel argued was not humane. They also recovered one live rooster.
Michael Gast, a veterinarian, testified that the dead birds and the live rooster were emaciated and showed signs that their muscles had wasted away. He said the dead birds’ heads were severed in a careful manner after examining them during a necropsy.
“There was an intricate cut,” Gast testified. “It would take some skill to do that.”
Gro Mambo Danthoula Novanyon Idizol, executive board secretary of the National African Religious Congress, testified for the defense that Carrion, who is originally from Ecuador, was a certified priestess in Santeria. Mercy Carrion is her given name.
Idizol said Santeria practitioners should keep animals properly, before they are slaughtered humanely, and should be disposed of in a proper fashion. She said animals are often prayed over and bathed with herbs before they are killed.
Idizol said Carrion’s handling of the animals was not inhumane.
“In this country that we live in, people do not have access to all of the things necessary in our belief systems,” Idizol testified. “If you’re asking me if this is inhumane, I don’t think so.”
When she took the stand, Carrion testified that she fed the roosters and had purchased them in the condition the officers found them. She told the judge that she had owned them for only two to three days before the slaughter.
Michelle Welch, director of Attorney General Mark Herring’s Animal Law Unit, said that under Virginia law, people cannot treat animals cruelly, even if it is for religious reasons.
“The issue is with the manner of the killing of an animal and whether it constitutes cruelty,” Welch said in a statement. “Virginia State Code does not include a specific religious exemption that would allow someone to kill an animal in a way that constitutes cruelty.”
Judge Deborah C. Welsh sentenced Carrion to a suspended jail sentence and ordered her to undergo training in how to properly sacrifice animals through a class Idizol’s group offers. Carrion and her attorney declined to comment on the outcome of the trial.