Why Dogs Are Getting a Bigger Role in Courtrooms

Around the country, certified facility dogs, better known as “courthouse dogs,” are taking the witness stand along with children and victims of violent crimes. They provide comfort and a furry head to scratch during often very stressful proceedings.

These dogs can also help calm distressed jurors, as a yellow Lab named Turks did during the recent sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby in Pennsylvania. Turks has worked for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office since 2014, providing comfort to crime victims and witnesses.

Several states, including Arizona, Florida, Hawaii and Illinois, have legislation allowing dogs like Turks to accompany children and some adult crime victims on the witness stand. Massachusetts may be next.

Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) has introduced a bill (SD.2628) that would require courts to allow certified facility dogs to accompany witnesses under the age of 18 or who have developmental disabilities while they testify in violent crime proceedings. Courts could also allow these dogs for witnesses who don’t meet this criteria.

Ellen O’Neill Stephens, a former prosecutor who founded the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, said SD.2628 is an effort to make the criminal justice system more humane for children. “There is science behind this, and these dogs calm people so they are better able to articulate what happened,” she told the Boston Herald.

While trained dogs providing comfort in the courtroom may seem like a great idea, SD.2628 does have its opponents — and not too surprisingly, they are defense attorneys. Some of them told the Boston Herald the dogs could sway juries.

“This could interfere with a person’s right to a fair trial,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for Massachusett’s public defender agency. “It introduces an unknown element. It could give the witness an aura of vulnerability and credibility, and that’s a problem for a person accused of a crime.”

Defense attorney Peter Elikann said a witness showing up in court with a dog “signals to the jury that they need it because something bad has happened. It allows them to presume that the person is being truthful and genuinely a victim.”

A dog in the courtroom “could send subtle messages to the jury that they should protect, support and empathize with the witness,” said Brad Bailey, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. “I would be very concerned about this.”

SD.2628 addresses these concerns. “To ensure that the presence of a certified facility dog does not influence the jury or is not a reflection on the truthfulness of any testimony that is offered by the victim or witness,” the bill states, “the court shall instruct the jury on the role of the facility dog and inform the jury that the certified facility dog is a trained animal.”

The role of facility dogs is not the same as that of service dogs. They don’t assist people with special needs, and each facility dog helps a variety of people rather than just one person. They are required to receive two years of training and must be graduates of a school that’s accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The dogs’ handlers, with whom they live, are usually employed in the criminal justice field.

In an effort to prevent any possibility of these dogs swaying juries, the Courthouse Dog Foundation has worked with courts to establish a procedure where the witness and dog enter the witness stand while the jurors are excused. During proceedings, the dogs lie very quietly in the witness box and are “virtually invisible to the jury,” Stephens told NBC Los Angeles in 2015.

Did having Turks in the courtroom influence Bill Cosby’s guilty verdict? No, according to one juror, who said his decision was based on Cosby’s own admission that he gave young women quaaludes in order to have sex with them.

Even if SD.2628 doesn’t pass in Massachusetts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that facility dogs will be barred from the state’s courtrooms. In some states, judges can decide whether to allow the dogs on the witness stand, and many of them do. As of March 2018, there are 155 facility dogs in 35 states. Hopefully that number will continue to grow.

Photo credit: David Walsen

119 comments

DAVID fleming
Dave fleming2 months ago

Ty

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RICKY S
RICKY S3 months ago

WOW

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Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D3 months ago

Glad to hear something positive for these victims. Made my day. TYFS!!

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Chad A
Chad A3 months ago

Nice.

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Vincent T
Vincent T3 months ago

thanks for posting

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Leo Custer
Leo C3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Janis K
Janis K3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Jaime J
Jaime J3 months ago

Thank you!!

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Patty L
Patty L3 months ago

thanks

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Janis K
Janis K3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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