Mercy Carrion, a high priestess in the Afro-Hispanic religion of Santeria.

A Sterling woman accused of sacrificing up to 15 chickens a week for religious purposes will still be legally allowed to own live poultry-- as long as she completes a course in how to humanely sacrifice animals, a Loudoun County judge has ruled.

As first reported by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Mercy Carrion was arrested May 5 for three counts of cruelty to animals. Loudoun County Animal Services officers found two decapitated roosters stuffed into a filing cabinet and a live rooster in a cardboard beer box saturated in feces and urine without food or water. A judge in Loudoun County General District Court found Carrion guilty of all charges but chose not to prevent her from owning more animals in order to protect her freedom to exercise her religion, Santeria.

LCAS officers also found blood splatter on the walls of her home, a club with a metal shield covered in blood and feathers, a knife covered in blood, religious idols, animal heads and parts skewered on sticks in a vase, among other evidence, according to a search warrant.

Officers first searched Carrion's home in the 100 block of Sherwood Court in Sterling after an informant said they saw her “run around the house, slamming the chickens to the wall, bludgeon them to death with a club, bury the chickens alive, burn the chickens alive and cut them from the top of the neck, down the center of the body, while still alive,” according to the search warrant.

LCAS seized the live rooster found in Carrion's home after they executed a search warrant. Carrion appealed the seizure of the rooster in Loudoun County Circuit Court on July 27. Judge Jeanette A. Irby denied the appeal after hearing evidence the rooster was kept in unsuitable conditions.

Commonwealth's Attorney M. Alexandra Hazel argued in General District Court today Carrion was on trial not for sacrificing the roosters, but for the inhumane way she kept them and the cruel way in which she killed them.

LCAS officer Patrick Breslin testified he first found the three roosters stacked in beer boxes unable to stand up or move around on April 25. He said the backyard of Carrion's townhouse only had a 4-by-4-foot dirt area. Hazel argued this is not enough space to keep poultry as required by law.

Breslin said there was no sign of chicken feed, corn or any proper chicken enclosures.

LCAS Deputy Chief Erin Peterson testified she asked Carrion how long it took the roosters to die after she began decapitating them. Carrion told her it took between three and five minutes for each rooster to die. Hazel told the court the law requires quick and immediate death when animals are euthanized.

Dr. Mike Gast of Blue Ridge Veterinary Services, who performed necropsies of the dead roosters and an examination of the live rooster for LCAS, testified the birds were extremely emaciated. He said the rooster's crops, or the part of the esophagus where the initial stages of digestion occur, was completely empty, meaning they hadn't been fed anytime recently before the exams. Gast also testified the roosters' muscles were atrophied like they weren't able to move around for a number of days.

Public Defender Allysa Woods argued any code violations Carrion may have committed do not trump her First Amendment rights to freely practice her religion.

Gro Mambo Danthoula Novanyon Idizol, a high priestess and the executive board secretary of the National African Religion Congress (NARC), testified Carrion is a member of her organization. She said Carrion underwent an extensive initiation process to become a high priestess in Santeria, a pantheistic Afro-Hispanic religion that incorporates elements of Catholicism.

Idizol said Santeria priestesses are required to make ritual animal sacrifices by “divine forces.” Priestesses service others through divination and divine forces tell them what needs to be done to serve the individual, she said.

Idizol said the entire process of getting the animals, keeping and caring for them, killing them and disposing of them is sacred. Priestesses must care for the animals humanely, pray for them, bathe them in herbs before killing them and dispose of their bodies ritualistically.

Carrion testified through a translator she “feeds the saints” with the blood of sacrificed animals.

“Elders in the church instructed me to sacrifice three roosters,” she said. “It was written I was to do this.”

Carrion said the roosters were in the same emaciated condition when she bought them two or three days before her arrest. She said she fed the roosters corn and gave them water. She placed the roosters in beer boxes because they were young and tried to fight each other when not separated, Carrion testified.

Carrion said she was in the middle of sacrificing the three roosters the night LCAS searched her home. The decapitated roosters were stuffed into a file cabinet once Carrion heard officers knock on her door. She said she was scared and didn't know what to do other than try to hide the roosters' bodies.

Judge Deborah C. Welsh found Carrion guilty of all three counts of animal cruelty.

“I do not believe the state statutes in question violate your free exercise of religion,” said Welsh. “They don't in any way prevent you from sacrificing animals.”

Welsh said there was no evidence provided that Carrion attempted to numb the animals before decapitating them, as required by her own religion. The evidence also shows the way Carrion kept the roosters before killing them was cruel, said Welsh.

Hazel asked Welsh to consider preventing Carrion from owning live poultry in the future. Woods argued the court would be preventing Carrion from practicing her religion if she couldn't own more roosters.

Welsh made the decision to allow Carrion to own animals again as soon as she completes a week-long course in how to humanely sacrifice animals from the NARC and shows certification to the court.

Carrion was sentenced to five days in jail for each offense, suspended as long as she completes the course within 12 months. She was also ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each offense, with $800 suspended for each fine if she shows proof of taking the class. She will be on supervised probation until the class is over and will be put on unsupervised probation after that.

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