Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dog in the Witness Box to Aid Rape Victim: Unfair to the Accused?

Does the presence of a comfort dog in the witness box during testimony sway the jury? Can a cute dog trigger feelings of sympathy and make the witness more credible? Is the presence of the dog a violation of the accused's right to a fair trial? These questions are being raised in New York following a trial of a father for raping his teenaged daughter. The father was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in jail. He is appealing. From the NY Times:
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. 
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.

Some comfort dogs have supposedly appeared in over 50 trials. While it is true that the dog is only doing what it is trained to do - offer comfort when the witness shows signs of stress - it is possible that juries may be swayed. This is quite a complicated issue and the appeals court decision ought to make for interesting reading.