Though they provide comfort to inmates, defendants, and families, courthouse dogs are most prominent for their ability to soothe vulnerable witnesses who otherwise would not be able to testify in court.
One such instance recently occurred in a New York courtroom, where Rosie, an adorable Golden Retriever, gave emotional support to a 15-year-old testifying about the rape and abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.
Convicted, his defense attorneys are now appealing, arguing that Rosie and other courthouse dogs unfairly prejudice juries with their cuteness.
When courthouse dogs sense distress, they are trained to nudge a witness, prompting on-the-stand petting and nuzzling.
Defense attorney David S. Martin explained to the New York Times that every time this occurred, "it sent an unconscious message to the jury that [the teen] was under stress because she was telling the truth."
Courthouse dogs can't differentiate between stress that comes from confronting an abuser or from lying under oath, and even if they could, Martin says there's no way to cross-examine a dog.
While unfair prejudice is certainly a valid concern and one that deserves further study, courthouse dogs don't have to be a prosecutorial tool, and nor does the jury need to be aware of whether they are soothing a witness.
According to Courthouse Dogs, the advocacy organization behind the movement, canines can do their job by lying in the back of a courtroom within a child's view, and at times are completely hidden from juries.
Moreover, defense attorneys have used their services, helping calm critical young defense witnesses.
Given the vast possibilities, instead of outright dismissing the use of courthouse dogs, perhaps it is better to find a way to minimize prejudice by informing juries about their capabilities and limitations.
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