Are prosecutors unfairly using comfort dogs to influence juries?

For many years, service dogs have been allowed in courtrooms. Typically, these dogs have helped people with disabilities function in court. However, a relatively new trend involving dogs in the courtroom may raise troubling issues of constitutional fairness.

The New York Times recently told the story of Rosie, a judicially approved comfort dog who sits next to witnesses and comforts them while they give testimony. Prosecutors argue that Rosie helped a 15-year-old witness tell the truth in a sexual assault case that led to a defendant’s conviction. However, defense attorneys argue that comfort dogs like Rosie can unfairly sway jurors in a criminal case.

Courts around the country have increasingly allowed specially trained dogs to comfort child witnesses and other vulnerable witnesses while they give testimony. However, defense attorneys note that these dogs are trained to comfort people who are under stress. Although witnesses can experience stress while giving difficult testimony, witnesses can also experience stress when they lie under oath. As one defense attorney commented, it is not possible to cross-examine a dog.

From a defense attorney’s perspective, the presence of a comfort dog can consciously and subconsciously influence a juror’s perspective of a witness, and this could cause jurors to believe testimony that they otherwise would not believe.

Even some prosecutors have admitted that a comfort dog can mean the difference between a conviction and an acquittal. This raises serious questions about fairness to defendants. Are prosecutors using animals to unfairly play on jurors’ emotions? Alternatively, are these dogs simply helping witnesses tell the truth in court?

One outcome of using comfort dogs in criminal cases is definitely certain. The use of comfort dogs in criminal cases will lead defendants to appeal convictions on the grounds that their rights to an impartial jury have been violated.

Source: The New York Times, “By Helping a Girl Testify at a Rape Trial, a Dog Ignites a Legal Debate,” William Glaberson, Aug. 8, 2011