Service of Courtroom Dogs

August 18th, 2011

Categories: Courtroom Dogs, Lawyers

rosie-the-dog

Whether or not someone is proved guilty, or the verdict sticks, frequently depends on which lawyer can find the most legal loopholes, make the most objections, discover tiny glitches in procedure to win appeals or toss around enough distracting, confusing drama so as to flummox the jury into opting for reasonable doubt.

I thought of this when I read about the dog that helped a 15 year old testify in a rape case against her father who was convicted this June in Poughkeepsie. William Glaberson wrote in The New York Times, “Rosie, the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York, was in the witness box here nuzzling a 15-year-old girl who was testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her. Rosie sat by the teenager’s feet. At particularly bad moments, she leaned in.” [That’s Rosie in the photo at the top and bottom of this post.]

The defense is planning an appeal that questions the fairness of allowing in a courtroom a trained therapy dog like Rosie. Rosie’s specialty is to comfort people under stress. Courts in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana allow such solace for children and “other vulnerable witnesses,” wrote Glaberson.

Isn’t Rosie’s work, while not literally the same as a seeing-eye dog’s, the same idea? seeing-eyedog2

“Defense lawyers argue that the dogs may unfairly sway jurors with their cuteness and the natural empathy they attract, whether a witness is telling the truth or not, and some prosecutors insist that the courtroom dogs can be a crucial comfort to those enduring the ordeal of testifying, especially children.”

Glaberson continued, “In written arguments, the defense lawyers claimed it was ‘prosecutorial misconduct’ for the Dutchess County assistant district attorney handling the rape case, Kristine Hawlk, to arrange for Rosie to be taken into the courtroom. Cute as the dog was, the defense said, Rosie’s presence ‘infected the trial with such unfairness’ that it constituted a violation of their client’s constitutional rights.”

juryOne of the public defenders noted that every time the child stroked the dog “it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth.” The father impregnated his daughter which DNA would confirm. I can’t imagine what the dog did to influence the outcome of this case other than give a youngster the strength to participate in a procedure that would be horrifying for anyone.

In courtrooms, judges advise and admonish jurors about all sorts of things and could easily note the purpose of a dog’s presence and tell the jury not to deduce anything about the testimony other than that there is a dog to provide comfort to the witness.

If you were a juror and saw a dog reassuring a vulnerable witness, would you read anything into it? Should trained dogs be allowed in a courtroom for this purpose?

rosie-in-court

9 Responses to “Service of Courtroom Dogs”

  1. Frank Paine Said:

    My heart aches for this gal, who should never have had to undergo this kind of stress: either the crime committed against her by her father, nor the unpleasantness of having to testify about it in open court–and we know that defense lawyers make a specialty of making witnesses uncomfortable. “Rosie” is a golden retriever, and I know quite a lot about goldens, having had a dozen of them over the last 30 years. It is no accident that a large per centage of therapy dogs are goldens–their personalities are well suited for it. Whether it is legal to have her in the court room or not the judicial system will have to sort out, but I find it hard to see how the presence of one of these wonderful animals could give an unfair advantage to the plaintiff–and that is the critical issue. Let Rosie stay!

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I’m with you, Frank.

    We think of our judicial system as being fair yet how many witnesses who are persuaded to testify end up far worse off than before, ranging from giving up their lives to hide in a witness protection program to dead. I’m for sensible ways that help support witnesses. Rosie and her therapy dog colleagues fit.

    In addition, I hope the victim is lucky enough to have a fine pet in her life. She can use a loving family member to hug.

  3. HR Said:

    Actually, my daughter Lisa, 25, has cerebral palsy, walker, power wheelchair and right now not 1 but 2 fluffy, poodle service dogs.

    Lisa had her identity stolen a couple of years ago by a home health aide and we did have her arrested and we did go to court. Lisa didn’t testify, too upset, but there she was in plain sight with Ethan the fabulous, 60 lb. grey standard poodle by her side. Do I think it influenced the judge? Not really. There was no jury. The woman on the bench never cracked a smile and Ethan and Lisa are too die for cute as a couple.

    So I don’t honestly think it had anything to do with the guilty verdict and the jail time. I really believe it was the facts we presented that won. Sometimes good does triumph over evil.

  4. Kathleen Fredrick Said:

    Although I haven’t responded to many blogs, this one I do think warrants a reply.

    I think courtroom dogs should be allowed. It is known how much comfort dogs give in nursing homes, the classroom and with children with developmental problems. Serving in a courtroom is one more good example.

  5. Debby Brown Said:

    Education about the miraculous work of organizations that train therapy and working dogs and the various kinds of activities they perform, will hopefully change this discussion. New York-based Puppies Behind Bars partner prison inmates who train dogs to help returning military service personnel suffering from severe head trauma. Canine Companions, Santa Rosa, CA, train service dogs for those with special needs and wheelchair bound, many of them children. Tonight, network news covered dogs that can detect cancer by smell. Dog’s capabilities and accomplishments are slowly beginning to be documented, recognized and indeed appreciated for their abilities. So, my short answer to your query is a resounding: “Yes, trained therapy dogs should be allowed int the courtroom!”

  6. Hester Craddock Said:

    I’ve seldom met a dog I didn’t like, but dogs are not the issue here for me.

    The defendent deserves a fair trial as much as his victim deserves compasionate and caring treatment by the court.

    For me, and I have served on a number of juries, the isssue is: Can any defendent receive a fair trial and can any victim expect a sensitive reception from any court in this country today?

    The culture of our courts, like the culture of our society is based almost solely on the premise that one must win at any cost. No lawyer worth his salt today gives a damn whether the father raped the daughter or whether the daughter suffered as a consequence. All that is important to the lawyers is, “Get the guy off.” or, “Nail the guy.” All that is important to the judge is, “Get the case over with.”, so the Bar Asociation will rate me as being efficient.

    I’d like to go back to the days when all lawyers and judges were “Officers of the Court” in fact, not just in name, and as such, felt that it was their duty to seek the truth and justice for all.

    Maybe we would be better off if we limited membership at the bar to dogs, and put all the lawyers and judges in kennels. But then we would have to put most of our fellow citizens in with them.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    I like animals, am prejudiced and would have no problem with a dog acting as a support system. They do so at home, so why not in court? That aside, there are people who always read something in every act, so it’s not inconceivable they would see something occult with the dog. So yes, admit the dog. Woof!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Kathleen,

    Glad you took time to respond to this post. We seem to agree that dogs have a place in the courtroom.

    Debby,

    I have never heard of either organization. How wonderful that they harness the energy and talent of both trainers and dogs to do such effective and helpful work. Sounds like a huge win for all involved.

    Hester,

    I see a New Yorker cartoon from your vision of lawyers and judges in cages with dogs pacing outside….hmmmm.

    Lucrezia,

    Sad to say, there’s always someone to find a picky aspect of most innovative initiatives. Next an animal rights group will complain that it’s cruel to keep a dog in a courtroom rather than in a park etc. etc. On behalf of all therapy dogs, “Woof” back.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    HR,

    I am so glad that your daughter has these stalwart service Poodles to help support her and that Ethan was able to accompany her in court. I have read that Poodles are among the smartest dogs of all.

    And thank goodness that the horrendous home health aid who took advantage of Lisa, her patient and charge, was caught and punished. No wonder your daughter was too frightened to testify! What a terrible disgrace: The person who is hired to care for you attacks you in this way.

    Thank you for sharing Lisa’s story.

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