In mid-afternoon on February 27, 2021, Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the report of a child getting bitten by a dog on Colbert Lane in Palm Coast.
The dog, a 3-year-old pitbull mix named Jati, had bitten off part of the nose of the 8-year-old girl. The dog belonged to Melissa Gilham, 45, a resident of Brevard County. The dog had been declared dangerous in Orange County the previous year. That meant it was subject to strict restrictions when in public. Gilham was not abiding by the restrictions when the dog attacked the girl.
Gilham was charged with a third-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, though rarely so for people who have no criminal record.
Today, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins sentenced Gilham to 24 months on probation, withholding the adjudication, which means Gilham will not be considered a felon. The resolution of the case is the result of a plea deal negotiated between her attorney, Josh Davis, and the prosecution. Gilham will not be allowed to own pets for the duration of the probation, and will have to fulfill 50 hours of community service, with restitution costs yet to be determined in the next two months.
The child underwent at least two surgeries–she was treated at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando–, according to Gilham’s arrest report. The incident had happened during a running event. The dog was wearing a vest that said “ask to pet.” When the girl approached the dog, which was tied up to a fence, away from runners, Gilham told her the girl to wait until the dog calmed down before petting him. The girl approached the dog anyway, bit the girl and wrapped its paws around her.
The dangerous dog designation is not arbitrary. A dog is so designated only after it’s been proven to have aggressively bitten, attacked, endangered, or inflicted a “severe injury” on a human, according to Florida law, or that has on more than one occasion severely injured or killed another animal. There are exceptions, such as when a dog attacks someone on the dog’s property, or when the dog is responding to torment or abuse, or when the dog’s attack is protective of another person who is himself or herself under attack.
Once a dog is declared dangerous, it must be registered with authorities as such, confined even on its own property, to prevent interactions with children, and when not confined, it must be muzzled. Signs must be posted conspicuously outside the property warning visitors of a dangerous dog’s presence.
Gilham, the arrest report states, “refused to follow these guide lines such as having a muzzle on the dog while off of her own property. [She] brought a dog deemed dangerous from another county to a public park hosting a running event full of people. She did not follow proper procedure in keeping the public safe from this dog nor did she reveal to anyone at this event that her dog was dangerous and no one should approach it. Nor should she knowing allow anyone to approach the dog. Because of this, a young innocent victim suffered serious injury to her face.”
Gilham, speaking in a small, barely audible voice, answered the judge’s questions and pleaded no contest. She told the judge she would have to give up her dogs. “They’re dogs that we’ve had since they were infants and they’ll be going back to Texas with my daughter,” Gilham said. Davis said the probation will be served in Brevard County.
The judge will allow early termination of probation at the 12-month mark, “assuming that you have no violations and you’ve complied and met the terms of your probation,” Perkins said.