Use Of Golden Retriever In Rape Case Courts Controversy In New York

DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Man’s best friend is currently under a court challenge. Defense lawyers in an emotional rape case in New York said the state unfairly used a golden retriever to gain the jury’s sympathy.

Rosie, the professional comfort therapy dog, hardly seems controversial. The 11-year-old animal, trained to help traumatized children through the rough patches of life, knows her job and does it well.

The dog made a historic appearance as the first therapy dog in New York state allowed to comfort a testifying witness in a criminal court case. It happened in June at the Dutchess County courthouse as a 15-year-old girl testified against her own father for sexual abuse.

The animal accompanied the young rape victim to the stand and by all accounts did a wonderful job by sitting at the teen’s feet and gently nuzzling her when she became nervous and helping her find the courage to testify.

The defense said that Rosie’s presence in the courtroom prejudiced the jury against their client, the father, who was convicted and is now serving jail time.

“She’s a beautiful dog, but the fact is that…most important thing here is making sure that the defendant’s right to a fair trial is protected,” defense lawyer Steven Levine told CBS 2’s Lou Young.

The courthouse dog program has been tried in other states, but it is new in New York. Critics said the dog makes a witness automatically look sympathetic and could help some pull a fast one.

“I believe the dog could potentially help somebody lie,” Levine said.

However, Majorie Smith, of the Dutchess County District Attorney’s office, described the appeal filed in the rape case as “smoke and mirrors.” The appeal is challenging the use of the dog, but the district attorney’s office insists the dogs are a help to young and traumatized victims.

“This dog is no different than the teddy bear that was allowed out in the previous New York case. Where they allowed a little girl to come in and hold a teddy bear in her lap when she testified,” Smith said.

The Dutchess District Attorney is so sure of the value of the dog, they are continuing to use Rosie in other cases even as the appeal is held. A check with other district attorney’s offices around the state indicate they will probably wait for a ruling before following suit.

The courthouse dog program started several years ago in Washington state and has since spread to Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana.

How do you feel about the use of so-called comfort dogs in the courtroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments section…

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  • John

    A defense attorney would logically object on whatever grounds he thinks MAY work if he can get special consideration for his client, but a dog, a teddy bear is really reaching. guess that is what defense attorneys do when they lose a case.

  • Michael Siever

    If the girl had a teddy bear, instead of a dog, would the defense have made the same argument? What if she had a non-cutesy-looking generic toy, like a Koosh Ball? Would the defense have argued against the use of that, too? What if the girl was in a wheelchair and in casts as a result of her father raping and abusing her? Would the defense have objected to her being presented in a get-up, that made her look like a helpless, defenseless victim, which she was? What if she didn’t have anything at all to “lean on “, as Jazerelle put it, where she would just freak out, saying, “Oh my gosh, he’s sitting right there! He’s coming to get me!”? Would the defense have argued that her emotional state swayed the jury? One more: Let’s say in an alternate reality, the girl had the courage to face the accused in court, and testify against him on her own. Would the defense bring up that mere fact that she was a 15-year-old girl could possibly have swayed the jury’s decision?
    The fact is this case wasn’t about the dog, this was about putting a witness in the most comforting position possible for giving testimony that puts the accused away, since this witness was a terrified little girl, afraid to be in the same room as her own father, the man who allegedly attacked her. So the prosecution wanted to accommodate her by giving her something to comfort her, and the defense wants it to not be used, so their client can get off the hook, and they get a book deal. Sorry if i sound a bit cynical towards criminal defense attorneys, but ever since Jose Baez, I just don’t believe they are truly in it for justice anymore.

  • amuse

    These dogs lay unobtrusively at the feet of the witness. Sometimes, they are brought to the witness stand and put in a “down stay” outside the presence of the jury.They leave the court – again outside the jury’s presence. Often, the jury does not even see the dog in the jury box. The dog is esentially hidden. That protocol should have been used here, instead of the dog following the witness in, in front of the jury, as is implied in this story.
    The defense *always* uses this excuse to appeal a conviction. And will, until the practice is condoned by higher courts a few times. I hope that New York upholds the right to therapy dogs in court. Lawyer/Child Advocate/Writer Andrew Vachss has interesting links about therapy dogs on his website. He would make a great resource for your courts.

  • Jessica

    Should we also restrict a victim from crying on the stand? That can envoke sympathy from a jury, as well. I agree with Amigwyn, if a jury is doing their job properly, then having a dog accompany a witness should not have that cloud their ability to come up with the right verdict. In this country, we already give the defendent the right to confront their accuser in court. If they are allowed that right, then the victim has the right to be made as comfortable as possible. I don’t think a dog oversteps those boundaries.

  • Jo

    I don’t know how these defese lawyers sleep at night. This child deserves all the comfort she can get.

  • Carline

    How is the presence of a therapy dog calming a young child to testify against their rapist not fair? Was it fair that a father raped his daughter? He can overpower her besides that fact she would never be able to stop the attack. That in itself is not fair. I’m sure the jury is very capable of knowing how hard it must be to testify against the person who should be watching over her. Especially if the child is young. The dog is best suited for the job over a stuffed animal any day. The defense is trying to pull whatever it takes to help thier client. The dog can not put words into the childs mouth, so what is the problem?
    The dog is only there to help. Unconditional love! Something the father is unable and unwilling to give his own daughter!

  • Amigwyn

    This sounds like a problem with jury selection, then. If a juror is sympathetic to someone because a dog is present then they are not doing their job. Let a murderer admit to murder while a dog was “comforting” him/her and see how much the dog would change their opinion.

    I wonder how sympathetic with the victim the jury would have been if she broke down repeatedly and had to be sedated due to a breakdown? Or a recess called while she tried to compose herself? I know I’d be sympathetic to that becaue it shows true emotional trauma.

    We seem to have double standards (no shock there). We want our childen to remain innocent. But when a monster abuses them we expect them to sit up and testify in front of a whole courtoom of people, including their tormentor. Which is it? Do we want our children to be grown ups or children?? A CHILD would NEED something like this dog. Heck, I might need something like that as an adult if I had to face an abuser.

  • Jazerelle

    Only a guilty person would object to the dog. I think it is great that a victim has something to “lean on” when testifying.

    • Tom

      Not true. Not saying he’s innocent, just saying innocent people have been convicted and any defense lawyer would object to the sympathy a dog can evoke.

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