WINTON - All around this struggling farm town, chicken houses stand in the fields as a testament to the way many here earn their living -- raising, slaughtering and processing chickens.
It is an unlikely locale for an unlikely criminal case. Today, two employees of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a radical animal-rights group that opposes meat-eating, are on trial for the strangest of charges: killing animals.
PETA is based in Norfolk, Va., but its work has international scope. The group, which raises more than $25 million a year from 1.6 million supporters, opposes any human use of animals, whether for food, fashion or research. In the more than two decades since its founding, it has become a major threat to medical researchers, meatpackers, fur sellers and others.
Now, two of its employees stand accused of tossing garbage bags full of euthanized cats and dogs into a Dumpster behind a Piggly Wiggly in Hertford County, 130 miles northeast of Raleigh.
Adria J. Hinkle and Andrew B. Cook, both of whom work in PETA's Norfolk office, are charged with 21 counts each of animal cruelty, a felony that can carry prison time, along with littering and obtaining property by false pretenses.
It is a strange turn of events for PETA. The group's supporters have often been prosecuted for their radical efforts to protect animals -- breaking into fashion shows to throw blood on fur-wearing models, liberating lab animals, showing gory videos outside the circus -- but PETA has never been accused of hurting animals.
Those who oppose PETA are seizing on the trial. The spectacle also has drawn a gaggle of lawyers, PETA staffers, reporters and curious onlookers to this rural county seat, where the small brick courthouse resembles an aging elementary school.
They sat through two days of jury selection -- longer than for many murder trials -- during which lawyers struggled to find jurors who weren't close friends or business associates of any of the more than 60 witnesses.
Several potential jurors were thrown out after saying they had read about the case, gossiped about it at work or formed strong opinions about PETA. Defense attorneys threw out a handful of farmers and avid hunters but left three people on the jury who work for a Perdue slaughterhouse a few miles from Winton.
Now, jurors will decide whether Hinkle and Cook were, as PETA argues, providing humane deaths to animals that would otherwise have been painfully killed in gas chambers -- or whether, as several local officials say, they were taking animals on the promise of finding them homes and secretly killing them.
A PETA spokeswoman, Kathy Guillermo, said PETA never wanted to get into the business of euthanizing animals. But she said the group couldn't ignore the horrible conditions in animal shelters around Norfolk and in northeastern North Carolina. The group now euthanizes thousands of animals a year.
"Euthanasia is a better alternative to sitting in a stinking pound," Guillermo said.
PETA opponents are drawing attention to this little-known facet of the group's work.
On Monday morning, the Washington D.C.-based Center for Consumer Freedom, an anti-PETA group funded by restaurants and meat producers, drove a mobile billboard truck reading "PETA: As Warm and Cuddly as You Thought?" past the courthouse.
David Martosko, research director for the group, described the case as a gift in his fight to discredit PETA. He plans to monitor the entire trial.
"Most people would not believe, if you told them two years ago, that PETA kills animals. They'd say, 'What? They're the bunny huggers,' " Martosko said.
Martosko and Stephanie Maltz, a lawyer with the Foundation for Bio-Medical Research, a Washington, D.C., group that lobbies for animal testing, paid a visit Monday night to the trash bin where the animals were dumped.
It was dark, and a man with a flashlight was rooting through the garbage, but Maltz was undeterred. She jumped out of the car and took a picture of the grime-stained container for her group's Web site.