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Well I Was There and I Saw What You Did: The Debate over Dogs in the Courtroom

By Cindy Davis | Miscellaneous | August 14, 2011 | Comments ()


rosie therapy dog.jpg

Rape is something you never forget. You can grow older, move on, forgive, let go, try to block it out and pretend it never happened, but you can't forget it. In the blink of an eye, something seemingly innocuous triggers your brain and next thing you know, you are transported back to that moment, desperately seeking escape from your own mind. Naively thinking nothing of following a superior to an empty classroom...wondering about the locked door...the continuous pleas of "Please, no" go unheeded and a heart pounds in terror. You can scrunch up your face and tightly close your eyes, try to think all the happy thoughts that might snap you back out of that place, but like a haunting, the ghost will never let go. Rape cannot be exorcised.

Sometimes the worst part of a rape is the aftermath. It is the one crime for which the victim will almost always feel somehow responsible, no matter what the circumstances. A sexual assault is an attack that leaves the victim feeling shame and fear, even in just trying to recount events-whether to the authorities or to a friend or relative. The victim is then subjected to an invasive medical examination that only exacerbates her violation. And often times, the victim's truthfulness is questioned, or her "reputation" is called into an equation where it doesn't belong (see The Accused); if someone in a powerful position is involved, the victim's allegations are scrutinized all the more.

I remember sitting at the base of a tree crying by myself, shamed and afraid, not knowing what to do and certainly not thinking about reporting what had happened. A friend found me there and she comforted me until I could talk. When I finally found the words, she gently told me that if I didn't go forward and tell the authorities what had happened, she would do it herself. She came with me and held my hand as the whirlwind began.

Just when I think the madness of this world can't get any worse, the universe proves me wrong. I almost never watch the news anymore and when I read it, I skim the headlines, looking for something other than hatred, death and destruction. Every once in a while, something catches my eye and I click through, hoping to find something redemptive behind the boldfaced words; this time it was this New York Times article on the front page: By Helping a Girl Testify at a Rape Trial, a Dog Ignites a Legal Debate. Being the naive simpleton that I am, my first thought was, "What in the world could be debatable about a dog comforting a girl as she testifies?" Who could have a problem with that? Lawyers, of course.

The case in the article involved a young girl who had been raped by her father. At the trial, a court approved therapy dog named Rosie was allowed to sit by the girl as she testified. Rosie provided comfort to the traumatized girl and was said to be the equivalent of a teddy bear, allowed when young children must appear in court. This particular case ended in conviction, but the defense attorneys are appealing in an assertion that allowing dogs "may unfairly sway jurors with their cuteness and the natural empathy they attract, whether a witness is telling the truth or not..." Because of this case and other similar ones, the issue of allowing dogs at trial is expected to send the debate to the New York Supreme Court. As these (and other) defense lawyers are crying foul over the victims possibly getting some undue sympathy (WHAT?) or worrying over not being able to cross-examine the dog (seriously), prosecutors correctly state that testimony is not affected; the dogs merely ease a child's stress and trauma.

Jurors are given instructions at the outset of a trial; if they are to be trusted to follow the rules of evidence and what is to be considered or not, they should be able to comprehend the idea of a dog comforting a traumatized child as she testifies. If, as an adult, I could barely manage to tell authorities what happened to me, I can hardly imagine how difficult and frightening it would be for a child to have to speak to an entire courtroom. To have to relive those events, with the perpetrator sitting right in front of her, would be traumatizing to an adult, never mind a child. Now, someone might say that I'm making the assumption of guilt here and I'll say, yes I am. If a child is distressed to the point that a psychiatrist and a judge think she needs a dog to comfort her so she might be able to give testimony, then by Godtopus, I'm saying that fucker did it. Kids don't fake trauma this way. They might drum up the drama with crocodile tears or lie about a brother hitting, but a kid isn't going to put herself through a trial, with a dog nuzzling her hand to help her choke out the words, as a pretense. As with any courtroom rules, those that allow dogs should be specific and laid out for very particular types of cases. But to deny a child rape victim this small comfort on such ridiculous grounds, is as vile and wrong and as the crime that was perpetuated against her. It's high time that rape victims are given as much legal consideration as is given their attackers.


You can thank your lucky stars that Cindy Davis is not a lawyer.



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