At the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) Victims Committee meeting in November 2011, I attended a fascinating presentation by Courthouse Dogs on the use of facility dogs in the courtroom. I had never heard of using a dog to calm victims and witnesses.
As I listened to the presentation, I thought about how having a facility dog in my office would improve not only the experience of victims and witnesses, but our success in trials as well. We decided to apply for our own facility dog.
While the application was pending, we researched case law to guide our facility dog program and determine the level of support for the use of dogs in the courtroom
I learned that courthouse dogs are used around the country to support victims of crime both in and out of court. These specially-trained dogs assist witnesses who may be frightened or nervous about talking about the crime or testifying in court. According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s website, there are 49 courthouse dogs in 21 states. In some states, county or district prosecutor’s offices use these courthouse dogs to provide emotional support to victims and witnesses.
There is currently no case law about the use of facility dogs in Ohio. However, there have been encouraging rulings in other states. Most recently, the Supreme Court of Washington determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing Ellie, a facility dog provided by the prosecutor’s office, to accompany a dependent, child-like victim while he testified in a burglary case. Ellie’s conduct during the trial never disrupted the proceedings. State v. Dye, --- P.3d ----, 2013 WL 5406430, Wash. (No. 87929-0), September 26, 2013. The Court noted that the trial court instructed the jury not to make any assumptions or draw any conclusions based on the presence of the dog.
This past July a New York appellate court addressed, as an issue of first impression, a trial court’s decision to permit a 15-year old victim to have Rose, a therapy dog, assist her while testifying against her father, who had sexually abused her for four years. State v. Tohom, 969 N.Y.S.2d 123 (July 2013). The Court held that the presence of the therapeutic comfort dog did not violate the defendant’s due process right to a fair trial, nor did it violate his right to confront witnesses.
In December 2012, a California appellate court supported the use of a therapy dog at the trial of a defendant who sexually abused a 10-year old girl. People v. Spence, 212 Cal.App.4th 478, 151 Cal.Rptr.3d 374.
In the handful of court rulings regarding the use of facility dogs, courts have held that there is no prejudice in allowing a facility dog to accompany a child to court or even sit with the child while he or she testifies. The key to court support appears to be ensuring that the trial court judge instructs the jury to disregard the dog’s presence and not allow themselves to feel increased sympathy for the victim because of the dog.
In Summit County, the judges have reacted favorably to our facility dog program thus far. We anticipate adding Ohio to the growing number of states that support the use of facility dogs in the courtroom.
Canine Companions for Independence provided us with our facility dog Avery free of charge in mid-August. Since joining our staff, Avery has met with several child victims. All of the children say how much better they feel when Avery puts his head on their laps or curls up on an oversized chair with them.
We recently had a case set for trial against a defendant accused of violently raping two young girls. The girls, now seven and 10, are terrified of this man. They were somber and scared as they sat in our reception area prior to their first meeting with the prosecutors assigned to the case. The prosecutors brought Avery into the reception area to see the girls, who were immediately excited to meet the dog they had seen on the news.
The girls played with Avery while the prosecutors discussed the case with their guardian. The prosecutors believe that the girls warmed up quickly because of Avery. At that meeting and every meeting thereafter, the girls always asked if Avery would be able to sit with them while they faced their rapist. Although they were visibly distraught with the mere idea of sitting in the same room as that man, they seemed calmer knowing Avery would be with them.
Although this case was continued, the prosecutors say they are confident about the girls’ ability to face their attacker in court. Were it not for Avery, the prosecutors say they would have serious concerns about the girls being able to testify.
On a more personal note, Avery has had an unintended but positive impact on my employees. No matter how much you try, sometimes you can’t help but take to heart the injustice we see on a daily basis. Witnessing firsthand the violence and cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on one another eventually takes an emotional toll.
When child victims play with Avery, they are able to momentarily escape their trauma. Seeing children who have been through indescribable experiences smiling and laughing and acting like normal kids, when they were shaking and unable to meet your eyes just moments before, makes it a little easier to keep dealing with the horrible things we see every day.
Whether providing support to victims in prosecutor meetings or during trial, I believe a facility dog can help to reduce secondary victimization and improve case outcomes. I expect to continue to see positive results from our facility dog program, especially once we start using Avery in trials and our courts become more comfortable with the idea of a dog accompanying a victim to the witness stand.
If you are a member of law enforcement within Summit County and are working with an especially traumatized victim or witness who you think could benefit from the comfort of a facility dog, we’d be happy to bring Avery to your department. And if you are interested in creating your own facility dog program, my office can provide you with more resources and guidance.
This article is not to be considered legal advice. Please consult your police legal advisor regarding any legal issue.
Sherri Bevan Walsh
Summit County Prosecuting Attorney