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updated: 12/27/2012 4:06 PM

Law students charged in Vegas bird-beheading case

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Associated Press

LAS VEGAS -- Prosecutors filed charges Thursday against two University of California, Berkeley, law school students accused of decapitating an exotic bird at a Las Vegas casino earlier this year.

The charges against Justin Teixeira, 24, include felony killing and felony torturing of an animal, while Eric Cuellar, 24, faces a misdemeanor charge of instigating, engaging in or furthering an act of animal cruelty.

"This was a cruel and malicious act," Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in a statement, adding that an investigation is ongoing and could result in criminal charges against others. "It is important to hold people accountable for their actions."

Police said the two men were seen Oct. 12 laughing and throwing around the body of a dead, 14-year-old helmeted guineafowl at the Flamingo resort-casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The large bird named Turk was part of the Flamingo's Wildlife Habitat, a garden area with ponds and streams that houses many types of birds.

Surveillance video captured the men chasing the bird into some trees, authorities said, and witnesses told police the two emerged carrying the bird's body and severed head.

Richard Schonfeld, an attorney representing Cuellar, said he was pleased prosecutors opted for a lesser charge for his client.

"Eric has an exemplary background and I'm pleased the DA chose to proceed with a misdemeanor," said Schonfeld, whose client faces up to six months in jail if convicted. "It's an acknowledgement that he did not physically harm the bird."

If convicted on all charges, Teixeira could be sentenced to prison time. His attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Criminal charges -- especially felonies -- can affect a person's future in the legal field. The State Bar of California, for example, requires applicants to demonstrate good moral character.

A statement on the bar's website notes that people convicted of violent felonies or felonies involving moral turpitude "are presumed not to be of good moral character in the absence of a pardon or a showing of overwhelming reform and rehabilitation."

Gina Greisen, the president of Nevada Voters for Animals and an advocate for the state's newly passed, tougher law against animal cruelty, said those potential consequences are appropriate.

"I don't think you should get to be a lawyer if you do something like that," Greisen said. "If you are lucky enough to be a Berkeley law student, you know you have to be above reproach in a lot of ways."

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