Rosie, the golden retriever therapy dog named after civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, has an uncanny ability to comfort children in distress. For this reason, she was chosen to accompany a 15-year-old girl who needed to testify in court that her father had raped and impregnated her. While the girl was in the witness box, the dog sat at her feet and nudged her when she stumbled or came to a particularly difficult part in her testimony. The jury’s verdict: 25 years to life for the girl’s father. What has since followed is a fight over whether the dog—and dogs in future cases—should be allowed into the courtroom. The father’s public defenders have raised several objections, arguing that the cuteness of a dog could sway jurors to sympathize with the witness and that the dogs are trained to comfort people under stress—but that the stress could be coming from telling a true, traumatic account or from lying under oath—or just from the trial altogether. Prosecuting lawyers counter the argument by saying that without the support of a dog, traumatized children might not be able to take to the stand at all. Does the presence of a comforting dog help a witness tell the truth or simply make the process less scary? Is a dog-free courtroom unfair to a child who’s been through so much or is having a dog present unfair to a defendant facing a sentence that could mean the end of his or her life?
Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney and the founder of Courthouse Dogs
James Cohen, professor of criminal law at Fordham University School of Law who opposes the use of comfort animals in court