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Jeff Counceller faces up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail for illegal possession of a white-tailed deer after charges were brought against him and his wife by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. / The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS - A governor's pardon in the case of Dani the deer and the couple who saved her might be the best way to abide by the law and serve justice simultaneously, Indiana's House speaker said Thursday.

Jeff and Jennifer Counceller - who found an injured fawn, nursed it back to health and raised it to adulthood with the intention of releasing it to the wild - were charged earlier this month with illegal possession of a white-tailed deer.

The charge is a misdemeanor, but if punished to the fullest, it could cost the Councellers up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. The couple faces a March trial date.

Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican seen as a champion of limited government, initially said Wednesday at a news conference that the state Department of Natural Resources seems to have "acted appropriately" in charging the Connorsville, Ind., couple with a crime.

The issue is small compared to mass transit and tax cuts that the governor who has been in office barely two weeks must face, but it seems to spark more emotional resonance with a broad swath of the public since The Indianapolis Star report Monday.

"Well, you know laws are imperfect, and people are imperfect," Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis said. "So occasionally a commutation of sentence or pardon might be in order in certain matters."

Bosma said he has not been "deep in the woods" on the matter. But from what he's seen about the charges against the couple, "This may not be the right direction. But that's the governor's decision and officials at the DNR, and it will be up to them."

Jeff Counceller, a Connersville police officer, found the injured deer on a police call. Another animal, probably a coyote, appeared to have attacked it. Counceller called his wife, a nurse also familiar with animal care, to tend to the fawn.

They named it Dani and after nursing it back to health, the Councellers kept the deer penned up for nearly two years on their property about 55 miles east of Indianapolis with the idea they would release it into the wild once it was big enough to have a chance on its own.

Their plans were thwarted when a state conservation officer discovered the deer, sought to have it killed and then - after it mysteriously disappeared - filed a report that led to the misdemeanor criminal charges against the Councellers.

Now the case has spurred a burgeoning grassroots social-media campaign. A Facebook page has garnered almost 37,000 likes; a petition drive more than 30,000 signatures; and a legal defense fund for the Councellers more than $2,000.

The thrust of the uproar - which resulted in calls to The Star from around Indiana, a dozen states and Canada - has been sympathy for the situation the Councellers faced when confronted with a wounded animal.

Another thread, almost as strong, has been people expressing concern that this is an example of government heavy handedness, of a failure to use discretion rather than hitting the Councellers over the head with legal statutes.

Some of it can be seen in comments to The Star via Facebook:

  • "Yes it is the law but is it the best use of taxpayer dollars?" wrote Anita Jones Adams, of Pittsboro, Ind.
  • "Jaywalking is illegal but not enforced. Give me a freaking break, Pence," wrote Joe Monastro of Indiana University.
  • "Classic case of government waste," wrote Rob Brown, from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
  • Pence said he became aware of the controversy Tuesday. Indiana House Republican leaders, including Bosma, asked him to review the case.

    The governor's is getting a briefing from the Department of Natural Resources that is expected to take a few days to complete, said Pence's spokeswoman, Kara Brooks. He was traveling Thursday.

    At first glance, Pence seemed to side with his government agency.

    "As most of you are aware, Indiana law prohibits the possession of wild animals," Pence said. "And the Department of Natural Resources is tasked, under the law, by the General Assembly, to enforce those measures."

    The Councellers have said they didn't know it was a crime to harbor the deer. They say they never tried to hide what they were doing, tried unsuccessfully to find the deer placement elsewhere and sought but were denied a state rescue permit. Most of all, they say they didn't intend to be lawbreakers, just care for an animal in need.

    The Department of Natural Resources saw the matter as a safety issue. It has policy papers that say wild deer can carry parasites and diseases that can be transferred to humans. And it also promotes the idea that wild animal populations should remain wild.

    But the agency has also shown discretion before.

    In 2007, it declined to discipline two conservation officers who used false addresses to secure cheaper, in-state fishing licenses in Ohio. The agency's director of law enforcement at the time, Col. Scotty Wilson, said: "We don't think it was a good practice. But do we feel they went over there and intentionally broke the law? No, I think it might have just been bad judgment."

    One of those who got a break was Travis Wooley, the conservation officer who spent a month in 2012 investigating the Councellers and concluded with a report that now has the Councellers each facing the possibility of 60 days in jail and $500 fines.

    Wooley couldn't be reached for comment.

    Whether it was appropriate to use discretion in one instance, but not another, "that's going to have to be determined by other people's thoughts of this case," agency spokesman Lt. William Browne said.

    Pence offered one last thought Wednesday after his expression of support for the Department of Natural Resources: "We all admire compassion for an injured animal. Hoosiers cherish our animals, whether they are our pets, whether they are livestock or whether they are wild animals. But this is a state of laws and as governor of the state of Indiana my focus is going to be to ensure that our laws are fairly and impartially enforced. And that will be our focus."

    Contributing: Mary Beth Schneider, The Indianapolis Star

    VIDEO: Finding a fawn, they couldn't walk away



    Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

    Read the original story: Lawmaker: Ind. governor could issue pardon in deer case

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