NEW YORK — In the 1942 Disney movie “Bambi,” the little fawn is wobbling on stick-thin legs as it runs through the forest, urged on ahead of its mother after she hears a gunshot. Eventually, Bambi stops and turns around. “We made it!” Bambi says.
But the fawn is alone in the desolate landscape. Its mother has been felled by a hunter.
The tear-jerking power of the scene from the classic animated film went this month from screens to a Missouri courtroom, where it has become central to what officials are calling the largest case of deer poaching in the state.
On Dec. 6, a judge in circuit court ordered that a Missouri man, David H. Berry Jr., 29, must watch “Bambi” once a month while serving a one-year sentence for his role in a poaching operation believed to have killed hundreds of deer, officials said.
“The judge is hoping there will be some kind of emotional reaction,” Don Trotter, a prosecutor who worked on the case, said Tuesday.
The judge, Robert E. George of Lawrence County Circuit Court, “was kind of trying to get through to this guy, some kind of emotional response over the gravity of what he has done,” Trotter said. “Something more than just sitting there for 12 months in a jail.
“It is an unusual sentence for an unusual case.”
In November, Berry was given a one-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of taking wildlife illegally, the state Department of Conservation said Thursday. But the sentence was suspended and he was put on probation for two years, Stacie Bilyeu, Berry’s lawyer, said in an interview Tuesday.
When Berry showed up in December for a hearing into a violation of his probation for hunting, George reinstated the one-year sentence and then mentioned “Bambi,” Bilyeu said. The judge ordered the sheriff to first screen the movie for Berry on or before Dec. 23, a date that Bilyeu said was chosen by the judge because he wanted it to take place before Christmas.
“He said, ‘I hope when you get to the part where Bambi’s mother dies, it makes you think,’” Bilyeu said.
In the courtroom, the order “caught everybody’s attention,” she added. “I can tell you the courtroom was full, and that it became very silent. And most of the eyes in the courtroom hit the floor.”
Berry was silent when he heard the order, she said.
Sheriff Brad DeLay said Tuesday that they were still trying to figure out how and where they would screen “Bambi” in the Lawrence County jail, which has only one dayroom for 52 inmates. “The problem is we only have the one room,” he said. “We have to run everybody out except for one person.”
Berry’s guilty plea came after a two-year investigation that began with an anonymous tip, according to a statement last week from the state Department of Conservation. It called Berry’s conviction “the tip of a long list of illegal fish and game activity” by him and other members of his family.
Berry’s father, David Berry Sr., and two brothers, Eric Berry and Kyle Berry, had their licenses revoked after being accused of poaching, according to the statement. Another Missouri man, Jerimiah Cline, who was charged with helping the Berrys, also had hunting privileges revoked, it said.
“Conservation investigators estimated that the group was responsible for killing hundreds of deer over a three-year period, Trotter, the prosecutor, said in the statement. “The deer were trophy bucks taken illegally, mostly at night, for their heads, leaving the bodies of the deer to waste.”
Randy Doman, protection division chief of the conservation department, said in an interview Tuesday that David Berry Jr. was a central figure in the poaching case, shooting the animals from roadways and using spotlights at night.
“In some of the rural parts of the state, they drive up and down and stick the gun out of the window,” he said, referring to poachers generally.
While the permit allocations vary throughout the state’s 114 counties, one permit allows a hunter to bag a single animal, and not at night, he said.
Berry “disregarded all the rules of fair chase,” Doman said.
George said in an e-mail Tuesday that he was not permitted to discuss Berry’s case. But he noted in e-mails that he had watched “Bambi” with his grandson about six years ago, and that he planned to watch it with his 7-year-old granddaughter over the Christmas holidays.
“I have always enjoyed rewatching the movies I grew up with,” the judge said in the e-mail. “We have a collection of Disney movies, to watch with our grandchildren and our children. I find the movies always placed the viewer in a unique opportunity to learn life lessons about relationships with others and the effects of decisions.”