Opinion Brief

Courtroom dogs: An unfair advantage?

Service dogs are increasingly being used to comfort witnesses during difficult testimony, but some lawyers argue that the practice prejudices jurors

Earlier this summer, for the first time ever in New York state, a service dog trained to help traumatized children was allowed to accompany a teenager to the witness stand, where the dog offered comfort during emotional testimony. The case involved a man accused of raping and impregnating his teenage daughter. The man was found guilty, but his lawyers are now appealing the case, arguing that the presence on the witness stand of Rose (aka Rosie), an 11-year-old golden retriever, unfairly swayed the jury to side with the teenage girl. Should dogs be allowed to help witnesses in courtrooms?

Yes. Legal precedent supports the use of dogs: Service dogs assisting in legal proceedings are "a growing trend, with comforting canines appearing in court rooms in Arizona, Idaho, Indiana and Hawaii," says Sara Nelson at Britain's Daily Mail. Indeed, dogs like Rosie have been used in courtrooms since 2003, when the practice was pioneered in Seattle. The judge in the New York case who allowed Rosie's participation relied in part on an earlier New York case involving a teddy bear, which was held by a child witness in a 1994 sex-crime trial.
"How a golden retriever called Rosie is helping comfort young victims of rape and violence in court"

No. Dogs obviously bias jurors: The presence of a dog unfairly prejudices a jury, says defense attorney David S. Martin, as quoted by The New York Times. In the New York case, "every time [the young girl] stroked the dog, it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth." That's quite an advantage, especially since "there was no way for me to cross-examine the dog."
"By helping a girl testify at a rape trial, a dog ignites a legal debate"

Don't listen to the defense lawyer's "horrifying" argument: "Tell me that's not the most pathetic case of legal sour grapes you've ever heard," says Jacqueline Burt at The Stir. The attorney's contention that the presence of a friendly-looking dog "infected the trial with ... unfairness" is just absurd. What's next — denying a blind witness a seeing-eye dog?
"Sweet golden retriever helps rape victims testify in court"

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