Wagging trials

Proponents say courtroom dogs aid nervous witnesses but defense lawyers worry cute dogs could influence juries

As the girl testified in an Arapahoe County courtroom last month, a Labrador mix named Maddie sat quietly at her feet.

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Julie Sugioka, Juvenile Diversion counselor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, sits with Maddie, a therapy dog Tuesday morning, April 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center . Maddie sat at the witness stand with a young girl last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

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Casimir Spencer, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, plays with Maddie, a therapy dog, outside a courtroom Tuesday morning, April 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center. Maddie sat with a young witness as the girl testified at trial last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

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Julie Sugioka, Juvenile Diversion counselor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, sits with Maddie, a therapy dog Tuesday morning, April 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center . Maddie sat at the witness stand with a young girl last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

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Julie Sugioka, Juvenile Diversion counselor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, and Maddie, a therapy dog, enter the Arapahoe County Justice Center Tuesday morning, April 24. Maddie sat at the witness stand with a young girl last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

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Julie Sugioka, Juvenile Diversion counselor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, sits with Maddie, a therapy dog Tuesday morning, April 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center . Maddie sat at the witness stand with a young girl last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

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Julie Sugioka, Juvenile Diversion counselor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office, sits with Maddie, a therapy dog Tuesday morning, April 24 at the Arapahoe County Justice Center . Maddie sat at the witness stand with a young girl last month, marking the first time a therapy dog has been used during a trial in the judicial district. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Testifying in a sex assault case was grueling for the girl, prosecutors said, but having Maddie seated at her feet calmed her enough that she was able to testify.

The trial marked the first time local prosecutors have used a dog in the courtroom to help soothe a witness as she testified at trial, and prosecutors say the practice is likely to continue.

“It’s hard for little kids to testify. It’s hard for them to talk about what happened, but especially in front of a judge and the person that hurt them,” said Julie Sugioka, Maddie’s handler. “That’s a lot of stage fright in the best of circumstances.”

Sugioka has been bringing Maddie to the DA’s office since 2007 to work with young people in the juvenile diversion program, where she works as a counselor. Maddie is a certified therapy dog and was previously trained to be a service dog.

In last month’s trial, Sugioka said the girl had previously testified last fall, but broke down on the stand. This spring, prosecutors tried the case again, but this time they had the girl meet with Maddie beforehand and bond with her a bit.

When it came time for her to take the stand a second time, Maddie was right there with her.

Michelle Shaw, Victim Witness Coordinator for the DA’s office, said that before the girl testified, Maddie’s presence was clear to everyone in the room.

“You could feel the heaviness in the room disappear,” she said. “Everyone wanted to pet her. She changed the entire atmosphere.”

Aurora police are scheduled to get a similar dog this month, said Aurora police Sgt. Cassidee Carlson, a spokeswoman for the department. The dog, which is expected to be a Labrador or golden retriever mix, will come to work every day with a detective from the department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, Carlson said.

Carlson said the Aurora police dog scheduled to arrive next month is different from therapy dogs like Maddie and will likely sit with children when they are interviewed by police, calming them as they are interviewed. But, Carlson said, the dog could be used in the courtroom.

“That’s a definite possibility with our dog as well,” she said.

According to Courthouse Dogs, a Seattle group that promotes the use of dogs in courtrooms, dogs were first used at trial in 2003 and the practice has since grown around the country.

Still, the practice has met some resistance from defense attorneys.

In the recent Arapahoe County trial, for example, the defense argued against the dog being used.

Sugioka said that the judge allowed the dog to sit with the witness as she testified and told jurors the dog was there, but the jury didn’t see the dog. She said she walked Maddie to the witness stand while the jurors were out of the room and they couldn’t see her behind the enclosed stand. When the girl was done testifying, the jury was led out of the room before Maddie left the stand. In future trials, it will be up to individual judges as to how the dog can be used, she said.

The lawyers in the recent Arapahoe County case did not return a call for comment this week, but other defense lawyers say they understand why they would have been concerned.

“It does raise concerns for me,” said Dan Recht, a past president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

Recht, who has worked as a criminal defense lawyer in Colorado for 30 years, said he worries that when the jury sees the witness needs the dog’s help to get through testimony, it could change how they feel about the witness. If that witness is an alleged victim in the case, Recht said that could be particularly damaging to the defense.

“From my perspective it runs the great risk of prejudicing a jury. It’s as if saying to a jury this child is in fact traumatized, and that might be the issue in the case,” he said.

Recht said courts need be cautious when deciding whether to allow dogs in the courtroom because it runs the risk of giving the prosecution an advantage.

“I think the court has to be very careful not to give the impression that it is prejudiced in favor of the prosecution,” he said.

But advocates of dogs in the courtroom say a dog doesn’t sway a jury.

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, founder of Courthouse Dogs, said when done correctly, having a dog with a witness doesn’t have much effect on jurors. If dogs are generally kept out of the jury’s sight, they probably have less impact than if a young witness is clutching a stuffed animal or has a person nearby for support, she said. Judges should also instruct jurors not to read anything into the dog’s presence, she said.

And, she said, in the recent Arapahoe County case the dog’s presence clearly didn’t sway the jury much because they acquitted the defendant.

O’Neill-Stephens is a former prosecutor, but she said the practice shouldn’t be limited to prosecution witnesses. Dogs could also be used to help defense witnesses testify, she said.

“The whole point is we are trying to find out what happened, and it’s not just limited to the prosecution. I think that’s the fair thing to do,” she said.

Karen Steinhauser, a criminal defense lawyer in Denver who spent 20 years as a prosecutor, said the issue raises some serious questions for her.

In cases where a victim or witness can’t communicate without the dog there, concerns about prejudicing the jury are outweighed by the need for the person to testify, she said. That’s why judges need to look closely at why the dog is being used so the case isn’t at risk of being tossed out on appeal, she said.

“From a prosecution standpoint and a defense standpoint, the last thing you want to have to do is try the case again,” she said.

Reach reporter Brandon Johansson at 720-449-9040 or bjohansson@aurorasentinel.com