The first dog allowed in the witness box in New York has sparked debate over whether "comfort dogs" should be permitted in courts.
In June this year, Rosie - a golden retriever therapy dog - was allowed in a New York courtroom to comfort a 15-year-old girl testifying against her father for years of sexual abuse.
As reported by The New York Times, the defence team for the 36-year-old father Victor Tohom - who was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life - is calling for an appeal on the grounds that the dog may have inspired extra sympathy from the jury because of her "cuteness" and natural ability to attract empathy.
Having allowed Rosie on the stand because the girl was traumatised and the defendant father appeared threatening, Dutchess County Court judge Stephen Greller rejected the argument that the dog may have prejudiced the jury, referencing a New York sex-crime trial in 1994 when a child was allowed to bring a teddy bear to the stand as a "comfort item".
Therapy dogs like Rosie, who are trained to sense anxiety and reduce stress by nuzzling a person or seeking to be patted, have reportedly been allowed in a number of US courts since 2003 (including Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana) to offer children and vulnerable witnesses solace when before a jury. Prosecutors have previously argued that therapy dogs can be a vital comfort to people enduring the stress of testifying and can sometimes mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.
But despite this, the defence insisted that dogs could well be responding to the stress of a guilty defendant lying under oath and that given there is no way to cross-examine a dog, this could unfairly sway jurors. The defence lawyers suggested the case could reach New York's highest court on the basis that the defendant's constitutional rights were compromised.
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