WHEN THE FAMILIES OF CHAD LAMANSKY AND DANIEL Myers filed into a media-packed courtroom to await the teenagers' sentencing on Dec. 19, they kept themselves separate from supporters of the Noah's Ark animal shelter. Lamansky, 19, and Myers, 18, had been convicted in November for breaking into the Fairfield, Iowa, facility last March and bludgeoning 16 cats to death. Because the crime drew only misdemeanor charges, David Sykes, the cofounder of the shelter, hoped Judge Daniel Wilson would deliver the stiffest possible sentence: five years in prison and $6,000 in fines.

But Judge Wilson handed down a more lenient punishment: 23 days in the Jefferson County Jail, $2,500 each in fines, plus possible damages of up to $20,000 and four-year prison sentences. After a dramatic pause, Wilson then suspended the prison time and placed the defendants on three years' probation on condition they complete a youthful offenders program. "Sending two young men to the penitentiary for four years," the judge said, "would be counterproductive."

Not to Sykes. "I was incredibly disappointed," he says. "The judge gave them a wrist slap." Many in the community shared his reaction. "There's a good chance we'll see these two men again," said J. Lars Fatland, a teacher of troubled students. "They need two years in jail, with some serious psychiatric help." Other Fairfielders felt relief. "The judge treated it seriously but with compassion and interest in the boys' future," says Lane Bush, a retired National Guard officer.

Lamansky and Myers, who both delivered simple apologies to the court, will be "under close supervision at least for the next three years," says psychologist Dr. Randall Lockwood of the Humane Society, who testified for the prosecution. Sykes hopes to change Iowa's laws to make animal cruelty a felony. "That will be the silver lining of this great loss," he says.