Ernie Lee's statement regarding alleged turkey abuse

December 10, 2012

Pursuant to my review of the facts and applicable law concerning the allegations of animal cruelty by employees at Butterball, LLC in Duplin, Onslow, and Sampson Counties, I have determined that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with any criminal charges.   

On October 31, 2012, I was contacted by General Counsel for the organization, Mercy for Animals.  The national headquarters for Mercy for Animals is located in Los Angeles, California.  Mercy for Animals, as depicted on their website, is "dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies."

General Counsel told me that the organization believed that alleged acts of animal cruelty were committed at several turkey houses located in Duplin, Onslow, and Sampson Counties.  She informed me that an employee of Mercy for Animals obtained employment from Butterball, LLC and worked in the turkey houses in question from approximately October 1, 2012 through October 26, 2012.   While working in these turkey houses, the employee witnessed what he believed to be acts of alleged animal cruelty and documented his findings on a video recording.

On October 31, 2012, I requested that General Counsel provide me with a copy of the footage to review, which she agreed to do.  On November 4, 2012, I reviewed the video footage with other documents provided by Mercy for Animals in support of its allegations.  On November 8, 2012, General Counsel, a Director of Investigations, and an investigator met with Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Maultsby and me at my office in Jacksonville, North Carolina.  At this meeting, we discussed the investigation and applicable North Carolina law was discussed at this meeting. General Counsel and the investigators were professional in their presentation of the investigation to this office and what was observed at the turkey houses.  

In November 2012, I continued to review the video footage.  I also requested five of my Superior Court assistant district attorneys assigned to the counties involved to review the footage and documents.  Two of these assistant district attorneys are assigned to Onslow County Superior Court; two are assigned to Duplin County Superior Court; and one is assigned to Sampson County Superior Court.  In addition, I requested and have also reviewed North Carolina Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Agriculture regulations concerning the handling of poultry.  I have also reviewed documents related to the Animal Welfare Program for Butterball, LLC.   

After reviewing the video footage and documentary material, I do not believe that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that acts of animal cruelty were committed by the employees depicted in the video based upon applicable North Carolina law.

North Carolina General Statute § 14?360 makes it a misdemeanor for any person to intentionally wound, injure, or torment an animal or cause or procure an animal to be wounded, injured, killed, or tormented.  "Tormented" means an act that causes unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.  "Intentionally" refers to an act committed knowingly and without justifiable excuse.  If the act is done maliciously, it is a felony by statute.  "Maliciously" means act committed intentionally and with malice or bad motive. 

There are a number of exceptions to NCGS § 14?360 including lawful activities conducted for purposes of production of livestock or poultry and lawful activities conducted for the primary purpose of providing food for human or animal consumption.  Neglect and abuse of turkeys at any farm will not be tolerated since ultimately these turkeys will be subject to human consumption.  However, in order to proceed with any criminal case, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of NCGS § 14?360 and prove that the actions of the employees do not fall within the exception in the statute involving production of poultry for human consumption.  

The footage and documents that I reviewed depicted workers attempting to move and moving numerous turkeys from turkey houses to trucks.  The turkeys are being moved from the turkey houses to the truck conveyor belt for apparent slaughter for human consumption. The overwhelming majority of turkeys were moved without any physical contact from the workers.  There were some depictions in the video of when the workers had to move turkeys by physical contact.  The workers did not appear to attempt to wound, injure or torment the turkeys, but rather the workers' contact with the turkeys appeared to be with the intent of moving the turkeys from the turkey houses to a conveyor belt leading to a transport truck.  Any contact with the turkeys did not appear to be egregious or malicious in nature and did not appear for the purpose of tormenting the turkeys.  As such and based upon North Carolina statute, I believe the conduct of the workers would not be in violation of NCGS § 14?360.     

In addition, the State has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to any alleged criminal offenses committed in North Carolina.  Even in the light most favorable to the State, from my review of the video footage, the regulations concerning the handling of poultry, and the applicable law in North Carolina, there appears to be insufficient evidence to prove any alleged abuse of turkeys beyond a reasonable doubt in the investigation before me involving the Butterball turkey houses in Duplin, Onslow and Sampson Counties. 

There are insufficient grounds to proceed criminally based upon the evidence in these specific cases.        


Ernie Lee
District Attorney                                                      


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