Courtroom dogs comforting witnesses spark debate

Tue Sep 13, 2011 2:17pm 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 pretrial 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...