Child victims must cope not only with the emotional consequences of criminal acts but also with the potentially traumatizing effects of legal involvement. Dramatic increases in the reporting of child sexual abuse are bringing greater numbers of children into contact with the criminal justice system, raising fears that child victims of sex crimes will be further harmed by the courts. 

Animals, dolls, and human beings have been enlisted to provide comfort and support to victims in criminal courtrooms. Since the testimony of a complainant is a key component of prosecutions, and subject to challenge by the defense, the presence of a support aid raises fundamental questions of due process, fair trial and right to confrontation. In addition to constitutional scrutiny, this witness aid will be the subject of scientific study as have other such enhancements. Still, the effects of comfort aids on witness competency, accuracy, and reliability as well as on the judge and jury have yet to be fully assessed.

The testimony of victims and witnesses is often crucial to the successful prosecution of a case, especially in cases where a child has been abused. Children are increasingly likely to testify in the courtroom face-to-face with the defendant, and these witnesses will undoubtedly feel apprehension about testifying. Courts are sensitive to the fear and stress children experience on the witness stand and are willing to implement protections to ease that fear. Court facility dogs can fill a gap for witnesses when traditional comfort items and support persons fail to ease their anxiety. Objections to the use of court facility dogs are often based on undue prejudice before the jury, increased perceived credibility of the witness, and distraction in the courtroom. However, an array of precautionary measures effectively combat any prejudice. With a properly trained dog and an appropriately tailored jury instruction, a defendant’s right to a fair trial will not be compromised.

Unlike an inanimate comfort item, such as a doll or stuffed animal that a child might bring to the stand, court facility dogs play a role in advancing a positive perception of the situation. Studies show that a child witness who is accompanied by a court facility dog is empowered to testify without fear (for example, by holding the dog’s leash while testifying or having the opportunity to look at or speak to the dog instead of to the examiner, who may be extremely intimidating to the child witness). Prosecutors and defense counsel have found that providing a comfortable atmosphere for witnesses helps them effectively testify. Studies have confirmed that animate touch (holding dog’s leash or petting the dog while testifying) often leads to a psychological sense of well-being, decreased anxiety, lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions, and heightened mental clarity.

In the case State v. Dye, it was said that, “This case requires us to determine whether a court may allow a witness to be accompanied by a comfort animal, here a dog, when testifying during trial. Generally, we give trial courts wide discretion to control trial proceedings, including the manner in which testimony will be presented. We recognize that some trial procedures, such as providing a child witness with a toy on the stand or shackling a defendant at trial, may risk coloring the perceptions of the jury. But trial courts are capable of addressing these risks. Here, the trial court acted within its broad discretion when it determined that Ellie, the facility dog provided by the prosecutor’s office to the victim Douglas Lare, was needed in light of Lare’s severe developmental disabilities in order for Lare to testify adequately. We affirm the Court of Appeals.”

Yet in another case, People v. Spence, Spence argues he was deprived of due process of law at trial when the trial court misapplied statutory provisions concerning certain sex offense prosecutions that allow one support person to accompany the child witness to the stand. Spence argues the court erred by additionally allowing a therapy dog or support canine to be present at the child’s feet while she testified, and contends this was “overkill” that unduly focused the jury upon the child’s alleged status as a victim, before any conviction was achieved. He complains the necessary statutory findings were not made, and the necessary admonitions were not given to properly educate this victim advocate and the jury about the appropriate demeanor restrictions in testimony.

In conclusion, it has been seen that therapy dogs help in perceiving this kind of situation in a positive sense, especially for children, who are already traumatized by the entire scenario. Yet, we cannot ignore the legal principle of presumption of innocence, where no one is guilty until proven. Hence, if relaxation is provided to a person, who has been given the alleged status as a victim, before being proved as one, it is legally and morally prejudicial for the defendant.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.

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