Being called as a witness in a criminal case is a traumatic event for almost anyone, including peace officers that are in court hundreds of times per year. Questioning by the criminal defense attorney and prosecutor may go on for hours, and witnesses have little idea what may be asked of them and their lives. This effect is magnified when the witness is a child.
Worse yet, what if the child witness was a victim of sexual assault? Just think for a moment about having to describe your last voluntary sexual encounter to a room full of strangers, and by describe, I mean very specific details of the event. A former president commented after being deposed about his sexual encounters that no one should have to do something like that. However, we ask this of crime victims every day in courts throughout the country.
Because of the traumatic nature of sexual victimization, many reforms have been put in place to assist in the interview process and courtroom testimony. Most large jurisdictions and now more medium-sized locations have formed Multi-Disciplinary Interview Centers (MDICs). It has been through these MDICs that therapy dogs have become commonplace. Even when a victim is in a safe and compassionate environment, the benefits of animals are welcomed and needed. The victim may be disassociating herself from the event or even the outside world or may just need the companionship and empathy a therapy dog can provide while going through the interview and related medical examinations. Moreover, many MDICs report that it isn’t just the children who need the therapy dog, it’s the professionals as well who listen for hours about the horrors of human cruelty and abuse. They too need a friend to hug, pet, and walk down the hall with them to the next interview.
The latest innovation in the effort to assist in the truthful and accurate testimony of child witnesses is the use of therapy dogs in court. For decades, courts have allowed witnesses, especially children, to have support. This often included a parent, victim advocate, or therapist. Many courts allowed a doll or other object that might provide the witness some comfort while on the stand. As a former child abuse prosecutor, I worked with the court to allow toys in the courtroom, moved the defendant or witness so as to provide comfort and security, and took other reasonable measures to help comfort the witness during difficult testimony. Will the witness be untruthful if he is holding onto a toy truck? Is she going to lie on the witness stand because the judge let her hold her doll? Of course not.
All that is being allowed is a little bit of comfort to assist them and give them a small amount of dignity. The first jurisdiction to use therapy dogs in court was Washington. Based upon the evidence code allowing the court to control the presentation of evidence to the jury, the prosecutor sought to have the therapy dog present during the child’s testimony. This practice has spread throughout the nation from California to New York. However, it has not been without objections from the defense. But this past summer, an appeals court in Brooklyn found that the use of a therapy dog in court was not inherently prejudicial to defendants. The court based its ruling on the precedent of allowing child witnesses to hold teddy bears. Currently, some jurisdictions are advocating for therapy dogs to accompany domestic violence victims to court.
In order to have the therapy dog accompany a witness, a number of practical issues must be addressed. The prosecuting attorney will notify the court of the intent to have the live animal in court with the witness. The court will likely receive an objection from the defense regarding the prejudicial effect of the accompaniment. Once the legal rulings have been heard and assuming they are overruled, then the practical issues will arise. As court security officers, your professional advice will be needed regarding the movement of the dog to the courtroom, placement in the courtroom, movement of witnesses and jurors while the dog is in place, and ultimately the exit from the courtroom of the therapy dog and witness. One legal issue of significance will be whether or not the jury will be aware of the animal’s presence. Some courts have allowed therapy dogs but required that the dog is in place and out of the jurors’ view before they are seated to hear the testimony. This will complicate your security issues and may even affect the jurors if one of them happens to be allergic to dogs or has a great fear of dogs that manifests itself should there be a disruption and the live dog suddenly appear. In better cases, the court will allow the therapy dog to be present and accompany the witness to the stand in the presence of the jury, thus reducing possible surprises in the courtroom.
In conclusion, the use of dogs in the courtroom is comparatively new and, as with any change to the “normal” method of receiving testimony, requires all involved to change their way of doing business. On behalf of prosecutors in their efforts to see justice served, the changes and extra effort needed to make the witness and therapy dog comfortable – combined with any potential issues raised by the defense – are worth that extra time. The child witness is being asked to speak about something she wishes never happened and must tell the jury in graphic detail what she endured. Having a trusted companion like a therapy dog may make that task just a little easier and help meet the goal of justice in the courtroom.