Courthouse dogs calm victims' fears about testifying
More than seven years after King County became the first in the nation to use an assistance dog to provide comfort for victims in a courthouse setting, the practice has been upheld by an appeals-court ruling.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Ask 16-year-old twin sisters Jordan and Erin what they remember most about being molested, and about the resulting legal ordeal that saw their father sentenced to jail, and they immediately flash on a dog named Jeeter.
"I remember seeing him drink out of a sink in the bathroom and thinking that was awesome," said Erin.
"I remember Jeeter slobbering on me," added Jordan.
For their mother, Kelly Dempsey, that's the ultimate testament to the role King County's first courthouse dog played in her daughters' emotional recovery over the past eight years.
With the aid of Jeeter, who's a golden retriever-Lab mix, Jordan and Erin in 2004 became the first crime victims in the nation to testify at a trial with the aid of a facility dog to help ease their discomfort and fear. Facility dogs are service dogs assigned to an institution rather than an individual.
Since then, courthouse dogs have gained widespread acceptance, with 34 specially trained dogs at work in 17 states. In addition to King County, facility dogs have been assigned to courthouses in Skagit, Snohomish, Kitsap, Pierce and Clark counties.
Proponents say courthouse dogs provide comfort and reassurance to children and other vulnerable victims, allowing them to open up about what happened to them and testify at trial. The mere presence of the dogs, who are trained to unobtrusively interact with humans, can put frightened people at ease and help allay the reluctance some children feel when discussing difficult subjects, such as molestation.
"We feel that if the victim or witness can be calm to accurately tell their story, then the truth-seeking process is working. If a victim or witness shuts down on the witness stand, the system has failed everyone," said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, which passed a resolution last year supporting the use of courthouse dogs.
While the dogs have been in use in King County courts for nearly a decade, the program recently withstood its most serious challenge when an appeals court last month affirmed the burglary conviction of a man who appealed the use of a dog at his trial. The appellate court determined that the dog's presence did not violate the defendant's right to a fair trial.
Timothy Dye had appealed his 2010 burglary conviction in King County Superior Court, saying that allowing a dog to sit with a disabled victim during the trial unfairly "presupposed to the jury the very victimhood of the complainant." The appeals court ruled unanimously that the dog's temporary presence did not create a bias.
Dye's appeal went to the very heart of the argument used by opponents of courthouse dogs, who say having the animals in a courtroom can unfairly influence a jury's sympathies.
"It's a loaded situation," said attorney Jan Trasen, who handled Dye's appeal. "The defendant is supposed to have a presumption of innocence and the jury is supposed to reserve judgment, but then you have an alleged victim testifying with the most beautiful, well-trained dog you've ever seen."
A neutral party
Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former King County deputy prosecutor who pioneered the courthouse-dog program movement when she brought Jeeter, her son's service dog, to work, said the appeals court ruling came as no surprise.
A correctly trained facility dog "is legally neutral and does not take sides," providing unconditional love and acceptance to anyone who wants it, said O'Neill-Stephens, who runs the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation with veterinarian Celeste Walsen.
When O'Neill-Stephens first started bringing Jeeter to juvenile court, she saw how the dog's presence relaxed everyone in the courtroom. Though Jeeter was brought to court only part time, on an unofficial basis, word of how he could lessen tensions spread throughout the prosecutor's office.
One day, O'Neill-Stephens was approached by a deputy prosecutor who was having a hard time prosecuting Erin and Jordan's father on charges of first-degree rape of a child and first-degree child molestation.
"He said, 'I've got these twin girls, and they won't talk to me,' " she recalled.
O'Neill-Stephens, her son Sean and Jeeter paid a visit to the girls, who instantly bonded with the dog. After that, the prosecutor was able to interview the girls in the presence of Jeeter, she said.
However, when they saw the courtroom where they would have to testify against their father, Erin and Jordan broke down and cried, said O'Neill-Stephens. With permission from the judge, she brought Jeeter into court.
One of the girls was hesitant to describe her anatomy in detail and talk in front of the jury about the molestation. She was able, though, to talk about Jeeter's private parts "so that the jury would know what had happened," O'Neill-Stephens said.
The trial ended in a mistrial when the jury couldn't reach a verdict.
Their father ended up pleading guilty to third-degree assault and fourth-degree assault. He was sentenced to one year behind bars, which was commuted to community service, and he served 30 days in jail.
(The Times is not naming the girls' father at the request of Dempsey, the girls' mother, because she fears retaliation. Although The Times generally does not name the victims of sexual abuse, Jordan and Erin agreed to have their first names used — their mother has a different last name — because they want to talk about their experience with Jeeter to help other victims.)
"What we want people to know is that they can have a dog to help them, too," said Jordan. "We're not ashamed about what happened. We didn't do anything wrong."
As the demand for Jeeter's services grew, O'Neill-Stephens successfully lobbied for King County to get its own dog, overcoming the initial misgivings of then-Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng, who eventually embraced the idea.
In 2005, Ellie, another Lab-retriever mix, became King County's first official courthouse dog when she was assigned to the Prosecuting Attorney's Office; her handler is a senior deputy prosecutor. The program costs the county nothing.
Jeeter has since died. O'Neill-Stephens, who retired from the Prosecutor's Office last year, now works full time with Walsen educating and training people about courthouse dogs.
They are also the handlers for Molly B., a Lab-retriever mix who works at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center in Everett.
They advocate for the establishment of national standards and guidelines that would require courthouse dogs be trained at an international service-dog organization and be handled by a trained criminal-justice professional.
It's a concern, they say, that many people, including some attorneys and judges, don't understand the difference between facility dogs and pet-therapy dogs.
Therapy dogs are usually pets that have gone through training with their owners to provide comfort to a variety of people. Facility dogs are raised and trained by the same organizations that raise seeing-eye dogs and other legal-service animals.
O'Neill-Stephens and Walsen said therapy dogs are not consistently evaluated or trained at the same level as facility dogs. They worry that one bad incident could endanger the future of courthouse dogs.
"All it's going to take is one bite, or one legal problem, and we're going to see years of hard work undone," said Walsen. "It needs to be done correctly because it is so important."
Burns, of the National District Attorneys Association, said the organization believes that any dogs used in court settings should have an appropriate temperament and disposition as well as having been tested as safe to work around young children.
Dempsey and her daughters said they were changed by their experience with Jeeter.
After meeting him, they signed up to raise service dogs with Canine Companions for Independence, and both girls are committed to rescuing horses and working with animals.
"Their memories, which could have been so graphic, are limited," said their mother. "Jeeter gave the girls a chance to get over an ugly situation. Victims in every county in every state deserve the same opportunity."
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or email@example.com
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.