Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law

Tennessee Court Rules “Therapy Dogs” May Accompany Accusers in Criminal Cases

If you are facing criminal charges, it is important to assert your constitutional right to confront your accuser. This can be difficult in many cases given that a jury may be predisposed to believe an alleged victim’s testimony. A defendant’s rights can be further compromised when the judge allows the jury to hear or see things that are not relevant to the case but still have an unduly prejudicial effect.

Tennessee Court Follows New York Example in Rape Case

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently addressed the potentially prejudicial effect of allowing an accuser in a criminal case to testify with the assistance of a “service animal,” a dog specially trained to comfort trauma victims. The case was tried in DeKalb County in 2014. The defendant was accused of raping a ten-year-old child.

The accuser testified before the jury in the presence of a therapy dog provided by a local child abuse prevention organization. Such “therapy dogs” are commonly used to comfort children who are reluctant to be interviewed by police or lawyers about abuse allegations. A representative of the organization told the court the accuser would be “much more relaxed and comfortable in the court environment with the animal present.”

The defendant objected. He argued the dog’s presence would be “unduly prejudicial.” The trial judge ultimately permitted the dog to testify with conditions. The dog would remain lying in a down position near the accuser but outside the direct view of the jury. The dog would also be made available to any other witness in the case, including the defendant, if requested. Finally, the judge instructed the jury to “not draw any inference regarding the dog’s presence.”

The jury ultimately convicted the defendant of rape. On appeal, the defendant argued that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to allow the service animal in the courtroom. The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. The court noted that there were not many cases to deal with this exact issue, but a number of other state appeals courts had allowed dogs to be present under similar circumstances. For example, in a 2013 case, an appeals court in New York said there was nothing wrong with a trial court that allowed a minor accuser to testify with the assistance of a golden retriever. The New York court said that while the dog’s presence “may have engendered some sympathy” for the accuser, it was not “significantly greater than the normal human response to a child’s testimony about his or her sexual abuse at the hands of an adult.” Similarly, the Court of Criminal Appeals in this case concluded a service animal’s presence did not unduly prejudice the jury against the defendant.

In response to the Court’s decision, the Commercial Appeal reported that a judge in Shelby County would ask the state’s judicial conference to adopt a model jury instruction regarding the use of “comfort dogs” in future trials.

A Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You

Every decision made in the course of a criminal trial can affect the jury’s ultimate decision. That is why, if you have been accused of wrongdoing, it is essential that you work with an experienced Knoxville criminal defense lawyer. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, if you require immediate legal assistance.

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