At the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) Victims Committee meeting in November 2011, I attended a fascinating presentation by Courthouse Dogs on the use of facility dogs in the courtroom. I had never heard of using a dog to calm victims and witnesses.
As I listened to the presentation, I thought about how having a facility dog in my office would improve not only the experience of victims and witnesses, but our success in trials as well. We decided to apply for our own facility dog.
While the application was pending, we researched case law to guide our facility dog program and determine the level of support for the use of dogs in the courtroom
I learned that courthouse dogs are used around the country to support victims of crime both in and out of court. These specially-trained dogs assist witnesses who may be frightened or nervous about talking about the crime or testifying in court. According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s website, there are 49 courthouse dogs in 21 states. In some states, county or district prosecutor’s offices use these courthouse dogs to provide emotional support to victims and witnesses.
In the handful of court rulings regarding the use of facility dogs, courts have held that there is no prejudice in allowing a facility dog to accompany a child to court or even sit with the child while he or she testifies. The key to court support appears to be ensuring that the trial court judge instructs the jury to disregard the dog’s presence and not allow themselves to feel increased sympathy for the victim because of the dog.
In Summit County, the judges have reacted favorably to our facility dog program thus far. We anticipate adding Ohio to the growing number of states that support the use of facility dogs in the courtroom.
Canine Companions for Independence provided us with our facility dog Avery free of charge in mid-August. Since joining our staff, Avery has met with numerous adults and children. All of them say how much better they feel when Avery puts his head on their laps or curls up on an oversized chair with them. They even excitedly ask when they can come back to see Avery.
Avery’s first trial was in January against a defendant accused of violently raping two young girls. The girls, now seven and 10, are terrified of this man. They were somber and scared as they sat in our reception area prior to their first meeting with the prosecutors assigned to the case. The prosecutors brought Avery into the reception area to see the girls, who were immediately excited to meet the dog they had seen on the news.
The girls played with Avery while the prosecutors discussed the case with their guardian. The prosecutors believe that the girls warmed up quickly because of Avery. At that meeting and every meeting thereafter, the girls always asked if Avery would be able to sit with them while they faced their rapist. Although they were visibly distraught with the mere idea of sitting in the same room as that man, they seemed calmer knowing Avery would be with them.
Avery sat at the girls’ feet as they testified. Although clearly nervous and upset, the girls were able to truthfully and convincingly explain what happened to them and respond to questions. Were it not for Avery, the prosecutors say they would have had serious concerns about the girls being able to testify.
On a more personal note, Avery has had an unintended but positive impact on my employees. No matter how much you try, sometimes you can’t help but take to heart the injustice we see on a daily basis. Witnessing firsthand the violence and cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on one another eventually takes an emotional toll.
When child victims play with Avery, they are able to momentarily escape their trauma. Seeing children who have been through indescribable experiences smiling and laughing and acting like normal kids, when they were shaking and unable to meet your eyes just moments before, makes it a little easier to keep dealing with the horrible things we see every day.
Whether providing support to victims in prosecutor meetings or during trial, I believe a facility dog can help to reduce secondary victimization and improve case outcomes. I expect to continue to see positive results from our facility dog program, especially as Avery’s presence in the courtroom becomes more routine than novelty.
Sherri Bevan Walsh
Summit County Prosecuting Attorney