VIRGINIA CITY - The case against three young men charged in the mass killing of wild horses east of Reno now hinges on whether prosecutors can prove they shot and killed a single horse.
Anthony Merlino, 21, and two former Marines, Darien Brock, 21, and Scott Brendle, 22, were accused of shooting more than two dozen free-roaming horses in the hills east of Reno in December 1998. They admitted they shot at one horse, but denied any other involvement.
On Thursday, District Judge Michael Griffin ruled the former high school buddies from Reno can be tried in the death of only one animal. The gross misdemeanor of maiming or killing another person's animal carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in a county jail, a $2,000 fine and restitution.
If convicted of the original charges, the three men had faced up to 10 years in prison.
''Without the admission of the defendants you have no case,'' Griffin told Deputy Storey County District Attorney Sharon Claassen at the conclusion of a two-hour hearing.
Claassen conceded her case was based largely on circumstantial evidence, but argued that the defendants' presence in the area around the time of the killings and their admission to the shooting of one horse was enough to let a jury decide their guilt or innocence in the mass slaughter.
Griffin disagreed, explaining that value of the slaughtered horses could not be considered as a total. Each case has to be charged separately.
''You may well believe these defendants did what you think they did,'' Griffin said.
But the judge said there was no ballistics or other physical evidence linking the trio to the other horse killings.
Claassen said her office will decide within a week whether to appeal Griffin's ruling.
The three men are scheduled to go to trial next month. But before the case proceeds, Griffin said prosecutors will have to amend their complaint and specify exactly what each of the men did to the one remaining animal, referred to as horse No. 12.
Claassen said her office has the option of appealing the ruling or pursuing the gross misdemeanor conviction without objection. If she chooses the latter, she said, she might try to prosecute Merlino, Brock and Brendle separately.
"You can't use the statement of a codefendant against another defendant," she said, explaining the advantage of separating the cases. "But then again, you have three separated trials to deal with."
According to investigators, Brock confessed to holding a spotlight while horses were shot on Dec. 27, 1998. Brendle admitted he shot and wounded one horse, but didn't kill it. And Merlino said he finished off one wounded horse to end its misery.
Claassen said investigators examined the crime scenes and evidence extensively, but had difficulty tying it all to the defendants.
"All sorts of shells and all sorts of guns were used out there," she said. "Everybody tried real hard."
Claassen's next step is to meet with the investigators from the Washoe County Sheriff's Office and decide how to proceed, she said.
The slaughter gained national attention. After their arrests, Brock and Brendle, both former Marine lance corporals, were given the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge.
Defense lawyers, who have maintained the three men arrived on the scene after most of the horses were already dead, were pleased with Griffin's ruling.
''We've got one horse and Mr. Brock is accused of holding a spotlight,'' Marc Picker, Brock's attorney, said after the hearing. ''I'm prepared to defend that at trial.''
''We've always maintained these young men were in the wrong place at the wrong time and there was a rush to judgment,'' said Scott Freeman, Merlino's lawyer. ''Now we have had a judge agree with us in a court of law.''
John Ohlson, attorney for Brendle, said prosecutors were overzealous from the onset.
''If they had been charged appropriately, they might still be Marines,'' he said of Brendle and Brock.