Court Therapy Dogs for Child Sex Crime Victims Questioned

TJust over 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Maryland case that set a precedent for child sexual abuse cases. In a 5-4 decision, the high court found that the Sixth Amendment rights of an accused person to confront his or her accuser in court were not violated by having a child testify via closed-circuit television.

Prosecutors argued that a child’s potentially traumatic confrontation with an alleged abuser could prevent the victim from testifying. The court agreed that a child’s testimony by video monitor did not take away the defendant’s right to confront or cross-examine the accuser. Now, another court is deciding whether the use of a therapy dog to comfort a child in courtroom testimony is out of legal bounds.

Children who testify in court have been allowed to speak from the distance of a separate room via monitors that can be viewed by a court judge, jury and the defendant. In some cases, a child may hold a toy or an adult’s hand while testifying. Recently, a trial judge permitted a therapy dog to accompany an alleged teenage rape victim to court, but the defense attorney argued that the jury was swayed by the presence and demeanor of the animal.

Under the Sixth Amendment, an alleged criminal is given the right to face his or her accuser. Montgomery county criminal defense lawyer Rubin Glickman, who is observing this case, has argued that the presence of a dog as well as the image of a child petting the animal would invoke feelings of sympathy from the jury. Defense attorneys further argued that such an image would lead jurors to think that, because the child needed a dog for comfort, he or she was telling the truth on the witness stand. If judges allow a dog to accompany children who testify, it could have a significant impact on criminal trials in the future.

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