Facility Dogs in the Courtroom: Comfort Without Prejudice?

Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Facility Dogs in the Courtroom:
Comfort Without Prejudice?
Kayla A. Burd
and Dawn E. McQuiston
Courthouse facility dogs are expertly trained canines that assist individuals with psychological,
emotional, or physical difficulties in a myriad of courtroom situations. While these animals are
increasingly used to assist young witnesses in court, it is not yet known whether they are prejudicial
to defendants or the witnesses they accompany during trial. Across two studies utilizing mock trial
paradigms involving child witnesses, we explored the impact of courtroom accommodations (facility
dog vs. teddy bear vs. no accommodation) on mock jurors’ judgments about the defendant and child
witness. In Experiment 1, teddy bears, but not facility dogs, were prejudicial to defendants, while in
Experiment 2, neither facility dogs nor teddy bears were prejudicial. Further, mock jurors’ per-
ceptions of the child witness were not influenced by courtroom accommodations. Evidence from
both studies suggests that, contrary to various legal arguments concerning due process, facility dogs
may not influence verdict, verdict confidence, or sentencing.
courtroom innovations, jury decision making, legal issues, sex crimes, child witnesses
Testifying in court is a stressful experience for most people, but can be especially difficult for young
witnesses or victims of serious offenses like child abuse and sexual misconduct (Goodman et al.,
1992). Children are often reluctant and scared to testify in an open courtroom for a variety of
reasons, including being hesitant to face the alleged offender, having to generally discuss difficult
subject matter, and having to specifically recount their abuse (Sas, 1991). Based on these and other
stressors that surround courtroom testimony, it is possible that the information children provide on
the witness stand is not as thorough and accurate as it might otherwise be if elicited during an
interview in another environment (Saywitz & Nathanson, 1993). Several evidentiary and procedural
rulings have been made in recent years in an attempt to combat some of the difficulties children face
as testifying witnesses.
Courts in the U.S. exercise the use of therapeutic jurisprudence—the law’s ability to influence
the psychological well-being of those involved in the justice system—implying that the law may
Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA
Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kayla A. Burd, Iowa State University, W112 Lagomarcino Hall, 901 Stange Road, Ames, IA 50011-1041, USA.
Email: kburd@iastate.edu
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(4) 515-536
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819844298
actually serve as a therapeutic instrument of well-being (Dellinger, 2009). Some argue that the law
should be analyzed to determine how law and the practice of law could be utilized or changed to
facilitate positive therapeutic effects (Zacharias, 1999). This belief and goal correspond with the
implementation of reforms, innovations, and accommodations in the courtroom, especially for
young and/or vulnerable witnesses (i. e., those who are young, elderly, or dis abled mentally or
physically). These reforms and accommodations are thought to ease the harm caused to young and
vulnerable witnesses during courtroom participation (Goodman, Quas, Bulkley, & Shapiro, 1999).
By reducing the stress experienced in this setting, witnesses’ testimony maybe more complete and
Lengthy legal precedence details permissible methods of accommodating vulnerable witnesses in
court. Federal Rule of Evidence 611 all ows trial judges ultimate discreti on when deciding the
procedures for examining witnesses and presenting evidence. This rule aims to make the presenta-
tion of evidence and the interrogation of witnesses effective in attaining the truth while protecting
witnesses from undue embarrassment and harassment. Other federal laws specifically protect vul-
nerable witnesses and allow them special accommodations in the courtroom. For ex ample, the
Victims of Child Abuse Act (1990) allows for special accommodations for children. According to
this Act, depending on the circumstances, children are allowed “comfort toys” or dolls, a support
person to accompany them in court, or may testify via closed-circuit television or through hearsay
testimony of their forensic interview statements (Dellinger, 2009). In general, comfort items are
often permitted when there is a compelling need for the use of such an item. Indeed, 26%of judges
and 76%of prosecutors surveyed in one state in the United States indicated that children often testify
while accompanied by a toy or a friend (Sigler, Crowley, & Johnson, 1990). Judges frequently
support accommodating children to aid in their comfort in the courtroom (Bradley, 2014); however,
research indicates the presence of a support person specifically may negatively impact the perceived
credibility of child witnesses (McAuliff, Lapin, & Michel, 2015).
The acceptance of comfort items accompanying young witnesses during trial (typically sexual
abuse cases) is also well-established in case law. For instance, in Smith v. State of Wyoming (2005),
the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s conviction, rejecting the claim that a teddy bear held
by the victim during her trial testimony violated Smith’s right to a fair trial. In State of Idaho v. Cliff
(1989), the defendant claimed that the court’s allowance of the 8-year-old victim to carry a doll to
the stand violated his right to a fair trial as well as his right to face his accuser in that the doll acted as
a “psychological security blanket.” The appellate court rejected this claim and upheld the convic-
tion. In addition, in State of Washington v. Hakimi (2004), the defendant argued on appeal that the
court abused its discretion in allowing two 9-year-old victims to carry dolls to the witness stand;
however, the appellate court affirmed the conviction.
A relatively new form of therapeutic jurisprudence as it concerns the accommodation of vulner-
able witnesses involves the use of canine companions. Courthouse “facility dogs” are utilized by the
courts to assist vulnerable witnesses confronted with psychological, emotional, or physical difficul-
ties during legal proceedings. Facility dogs are expertly trained canines and graduates of accredited
programs under the guidance of Assistance Dogs International. They are used to provide companion-
ship and comfort by accompanying vulnerable witnesses, typically children, during forensic inter-
views and in-court testimony when it is believed that the witness would be too distraught or too
emotional to give full or effective testimony (Dellinger, 2009). They have also been used to assist
elderly and disabled witnesses, as well as defendants. When utilized in the courtroom, the dogs are
typically instructed to lie silently on the floor near to or just within the witness’ view and, in some
cases, are hidden from jurors’ view entirely. According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation
(www.courthousedogs.org), there are currently over 200 facility dogs working in nearly 40 states,
as well as in Canada, Chile, and other countries. The use of facility dogs during trial has anecdotally
been considered very helpful by witnesses, victims, victim advocates, attorneys, and others (see
516 Criminal Justice Review 44(4)

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