September 16, 2008
Surviving a scandal
Dr. Joshua Winston comes out clean after going through the legal wringer
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service
Sun City West, Ariz. — It took 14 months and roughly $200,000 to save his reputation and his license to practice veterinary medicine.
On Sept. 9, an eight-member Maricopa County Superior Court jury joined
state regulators in acquitting Dr. Joshua Winston of animal cruelty and
theft charges that nearly cost him his Sun City West practice. The
eight-day trial, which involved a felony as well as misdemeanor counts,
largely focused on Winston’s June 4, 2007, handling of an aggressive
Chihuahua that resulted in the dog’s eye injury. The unrelated theft
charge originated from accusations that Winston failed to administer
vaccines in at least one other hostile patient but still charged the
owner, court records say.
Winston’s depiction of media frenzy, an alleged witch hunt by county
authorities, anonymous death threats and false accusations made by
disgruntled staffers sounds like the recipe for on of John Grisham's legal mysteries.
His account begins one week after what the 53-year-old had written off
as an unfortunate and unintentional incident. On June 11, plain-clothes
officers arrested Winston at his practice, alerting news outlets before
ushering him on perp walk into the county jail system. His alleged
offense: Hitting a struggling animal so hard its eye dislodged, news
outlets maintained. Winston, who had practiced for 25 years with a
clean record, marvels that it took just 20 seconds with an animal to
change his life indefinitely.
“This dog was in for a spay, and I was holding her when she went off,”
he recalls. “We were struggling to get a muzzle on her when she spun
around and got her nose stuck in the grate of the tub table. I tapped
her on the head to get her to pop up, and it was then that I could see
that the eye started to come forward mildly on the right side. I
sedated the dog, examined her and called the owner. I felt terrible. I
fixed the eye appropriately.”
It’s a mishap that could befall any veterinarian, Winston maintains. And it wasn’t the owner who went to authorities. According to court
records, two technicians and an office manager alerted sheriff’s
detectives that Winston had abused the animal. “They didn’t even
interview the owner until two hours after I was arrested,” he says.
What happened next is a string of what Winston characterizes as
unfortunate and embarrassing events. Still, sitting in a jail cell in
his white coat only to be bombarded by television crews upon posting
bail was the least of his worries. Winston's practice was sure to
suffer, along with his reputation. Preparing his 10-year-old son to
hear the media reports tops his list of what he calls “horrible
Yet it was the county sheriff and prosecutor who most concerned the
small-animal veterinarian. The pair, he claims, was on a mission,
despite a lack of evidence. With authorities calling to fast track his
case before state regulators, temporary relief came when the Arizona
Veterinary Medical Examining Board cleared him of all animal abuse and
malpractice charges following an eight-hour trial last September.
“They said there was no evidence that this dog had been abused, so I
thought that was the end of it,” Winston says. “But then the sheriff
went on TV and said that he was suspicious that the board was
protecting me. The prosecutor said that their decision went against the
weight of the evidence.”
Officials in both offices did not return repeated interview requests.
Winston describes the next year of his life as “pure hell,” walking on
eggshells in his practice and enduring public degradation. Even
colleagues on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) accused Winston
of having “anger issues,” going as far as to “recommend Prozac”
for the embattled veterinarian.
By the time his trial began on Aug. 29, the accusers’ stories had
shifted, leaving their credibility at risk. Eight days of testimony
brought 30 witnesses, including three veterinarians. After hearing the
jury’s not guilty verdict on all counts, Winston broke down in tears.
"That was the longest moment of my life," he recalls. Yet despite the relief,
Winston says that being vindicated by the board and a jury of his peers
is not enough to clear his name. His acquittal failed to garner the
level of media he encountered during his high-profile arrest.
There’s even a Web site where 10,000 bloggers have signed a petitioned
to have him castrated.
Winston says his only option is to move ahead.
“My 15 minutes will fade, but the stink will never leave me. I’ve been
the most investigated veterinarian in this country, and I’ve survived.
Sometimes it makes you stronger. It’s a relief to have my life back.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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