Courtrooms can be frightening and intimidating places for rape victims, as nearly every sexual assault trial shows. After all, the victim is testifying about a traumatic experience in front of people who are actively trying to prove that he or she is not telling the truth. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what could help rape victims feel more comfortable in a courtroom.
But maybe there are some solutions. The New York Times‘ William Glaberson writes about Rosie, the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York, who sat in the witness box with a 15-year-old girl who had been raped and impregnated by her father. Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog, trained to help people when they are under stress. Other states have allowed animals into the courtroom to give vulnerable witnesses support.
And, at least in this case, Rosie helped. Glaberson writes that “at least once when the teenager hesitated in Judge Greller’s courtroom, Rosie rose and seemed to push the girl gently with her nose.” In June, the girl’s father was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.
Of course, critics are raising objections about the introduction of comfort measures into the courtroom. The dog, said the girl’s father’s public defenders, could have provided solace regardless of the stress – whether it was from a threatening defendant or the choice to lie under oath. The jury, however, was likely not to see the latter as a possibility.
“Every time she stroked the dog,” one of the lawyers explained in an interview, “it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth.”
The presence of comforting animals, however, can make all the difference for vulnerable witnesses or plaintiffs who might be unwilling to testify under other circumstances. A developmentally disabled 57-year-old man recalled how another therapy dog, Ellie, had given him the strength to testify against a man accused to trying to steal from him. Ellie, he said, was his only friend in the courtroom.
Dogs can be particularly helpful for traumatized children. ”We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow of Snohomish County, Washington told Rebecca Wallick in a piece for “The Bark.” “[The dog] allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so [the dog] is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. [The dog] is calming and reassuring.”
And it’s not just the children who benefit. Writing for the American Bar Association’s GPSolo magazine, Debra S. Hart-Cohen observes, “Judges, lawyers, victim advocates, and court staff – all those who deal on a daily basis with the often-horrible consequences of crime – can find their morale boosted through the presence of dogs in court.”
This new practice has the potential to offer courage to people for whom a courtroom might be a dangerous, threatening place. And the appeal of Rosie’s latest case could decide whether it will be permitted to continue.
Photo from Marvin Kuo via flickr.