When a 15-year-old rape victim from Poughkeepsie, New York, took the stand to testify against her father last summer, she wasn't alone. In the witness box, at her feet, sat Rosie, a golden retriever, who snuggled up close to the girl as she reported how her father had molested and impregnated her, The New York Times reported this week, and when the girl hesitated, Rosie pushed her gently with her nose and encouraged her to keep talking.
The father was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But his team of lawyers are launching an appeal that could send this case all the way to New York's highest court. Their reason for the appeal? Rosie.
Citing "prosecutorial misconduct," the defense's lawyers say that allowing the dog into the courtroom was emotionally manipulative. "Every time she stroked the dog," defense lawyer David S. Martin told The New York Times, "it sent an unconscious message to the jury that she was under stress because she was telling the truth." Having a dog on the stand in this case, Martin feels, prejudiced the jury to side with the prosecution and compromised his client's constitutional right to a fair trial.
District Attorney Kristine Hawlk, who handled the case, says that's nonsense. And "testimony enablers" such as therapy dogs are becoming more common, according to the advocacy group Courthouse Dogs, which claims that the presence of a trained therapy dog not only can help bring comfort to child victims, but can humanize the courthouse process overall. Comforting child victims through the emotionally fraught process of testifying in court is not without precedent; in 1994, a New York appeals court ruled that a young child could take a teddy bear along to the witness stand.
Reading through the article, I noted the repetition of the word comfort. "Rosie is a golden retriever therapy dog who specializes in comforting people"; she "comforts traumatized children"; some prosecution lawyers argue that "courtroom dogs can be a crucial comfort to those enduring the ordeal of testifying, especially children." Perhaps because I recently attended a worship planning meeting and am thus already thinking about Advent and Christmas, I have had John Ferguson's anthem "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" playing through my mind all day. Humming the song and re-reading the article, it seems as if Rosie and therapy dogs like her are standing in some very dark places as symbols of the comfort God longs to bring to his children.
But what happens when bringing someone comfort violates another person's rights? Our Founding Fathers believed that the rights they wrote into the Declaration of Independence were scriptural: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." If someone's comfort is on one side of the scale and someone else's unalienable rights on the other, and you ask me which way the scale should tip, I think I'd go with unalienable rights just about every time.
Make those "unalienable rights" the rights of a father who raped his teenage daughter, and the "comfort" a furry, four-footed therapy dog helping a young girl through unspeakable trauma, and all of a sudden I feel a whole lot differently.
I'm not swayed by the dog. If anything, should I happen to be on a jury where a comfort dog is present in the courtroom, I'd have to watch that I wasn't influenced against the prosecution, as I'm not fond of dogs. I know I'm in the minority here, but a dog on the witness stand would have me tucking my feet under my chair and scootching just a bit further away. I recognize that the average juror doesn't share my aversion, though, and I see how having a dog on the witness stand could sway the trial.
But I can't get John Ferguson's setting of Isaiah 40 out of my head.
The State of New York will have to decide if Rosie's presence in the courtroom during the rape trial violated the defendant's constitutional rights, and the outcome of that decision will be precedent-setting. I'll be watching the news to see what happens. In the meantime, I'll keep singing Isaiah 40.