By helping girl testify at trial,dog sparks debate

By helping girl testify at trial,dog sparks debate

Rosie is a therapy dog who helps those traumatised speak up,but some say she sways jurors

Rosie,the first judicially approved courtroom dog in New York,was in the witness box here nuzzling a 15-year-old girl who was testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her. Rosie sat by the teenager’s feet. At particularly bad moments,she leaned in.

When the trial ended in June with the father’s conviction,the teenager “was most grateful to Rosie above all,” said David A Crenshaw,a psychologist who works with the teenager. “She just kept hugging Rosie,” he said.

Now an appeal planned by the defence lawyers is placing Rosie at the heart of a legal debate that will test whether there will be more Rosies in courtrooms in New York and,possibly,other states.

Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog who specialises in comforting people when they are under stress. Both prosecutors and defence lawyers have described her as adorable,though she has been known to slobber.


Prosecutors here noted that she is also in the vanguard of a growing trial trend: in Arizona,Hawaii,Idaho,Indiana and some other states in the last few years,courts have allowed such trained dogs to offer children and other vulnerable witnesses nuzzling solace in front of juries.

The new role for dogs as testimony enablers can,however,raise thorny legal questions. Defence lawyers argue that the dogs may unfairly sway jurors with their cuteness and the natural empathy they attract,whether a witness is telling the truth or not,and some prosecutors insist that the courtroom dogs can be a crucial comfort to those enduring the ordeal of testifying,especially children.

The new witness-stand role for dogs in several states began in 2003,when the prosecution won permission for a dog named Jeeter to help in a sexual assault case in Seattle. “Sometimes the dog means the difference between a conviction and an acquittal,” said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens,a prosecutor there.

At least once when the teenager hesitated in Dutchess County Court judge Stephen L Greller’s courtroom,the dog rose and seemed to push the girl gently with her nose. Defendant,Victor Tohom was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.WILLIAM GLABERSON