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09 Oct 2013
The New York Law Journal ran an article last week about the use of comfort dogs in trials (link here, but apologies: it requires subscription), specifically in regards to the case of People v. Tohom. Dogs are becoming more common in courts to assist victims and witnesses, and in this case, the defendant formally opposed the use of the companion dog because he thought it would create a prejudice against him in the trial and cause the jury to view the witness as more reliable than she otherwise would appear. The judge balanced that potential against the necessity of the witness to have a comfort dog available and determined that the dog’s presence was definitely appropriate (text of that decision available as a PDF from CourthouseDogs.com); however, it does bring to the forefront the question of balancing the accommodations made for vulnerable witnesses (such as the use of a comfort dog) against the rights of the defendant, including right to a fair trial.
From the details of People v. Tohom, it does seem like the decision was the correct one, as the victim was suffering symptoms of PTSD which the dog had helped with prior to the trial; in the NYLJ article, though, the authors reference a case from Washington State in which the request to use a courthouse dog for the purpose of calming a disruptive defendant was denied as other means were considered available and ultimately used.
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