U.S. courtroom dogs spark legal debate

Mon Sep 12, 2011 12:21pm EDT
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By Dan Wiessner

HUDSON, New York (Reuters) - Simon is only three years old but already an indispensable staffer at his office, where he has displayed a knack for helping abused children navigate an intimidating legal system.

He is also a lean, jet-black Labrador retriever.

Simon's job is to comfort children testifying or being interviewed in court cases, a normally stressful environment.

Diane Silman, Simon's boss as the head of the Ozark Foothills Child Advocacy Center in southern Missouri, said Simon has helped more than 300 children brave pre-trial interviews, and accompanies them to court when necessary.

"A four-year-old once remained engaged in an interview for about an hour, which is pretty amazing," Silman said.

Dogs have been used to comfort victims and witnesses -- particularly children -- in and out of the courtroom for more than 20 years, and the practice has become relatively common in a handful of states over the last decade.

Until recently, courtroom dogs faced little more than preliminary objections from defense attorneys.

But earlier this summer, a New York lawyer became the first in the nation to appeal his client's conviction of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl because a dog was used to comfort her during her testimony at trial.   Continued...