Dogs have been loyal companions to humans for centuries. For many of us, our pets become members of our family.
There is plenty of research as well as anecdotal evidence to show that these lovable creatures dramatically improve the mental and physical health of their human companions. The criminal justice system is increasingly coming to recognize what pet owners have known for centuries—that animals—particularly well trained dogs—can be tremendous source of comfort for their human companions. Indeed, they have long been used as therapy dogs for traumatized individuals. So, it should come as no surprise that dogs are increasingly being accepted by courts to accompany victims in court.
New Mexico, like many states, has long allowed the use of “comfort items” and/or support persons to accompany young children when they testify in court. See e.g. State v. Marquez, 124 N.M. 409 (Ct. App. 1997). Allowing a dog to accompany a child during testimony, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon and has not yet been accepted or allowed in all courtrooms. This decision is within the discretion of the individual judge. I have appeared at our district judges’ monthly meeting to advocate to the judges about the benefits of allowing dogs to appear in their courtrooms. In New Mexico, both magistrate and district court judges throughout the state have increasingly allowed the use of a dog in court, including former Cibola County District Judge Pedro Rael. Judge Rael had agreed to allow Lucy (a trained courthouse dog) to accompany a young sexual assault victim during her trial testimony. She did so well during a pre-trial interview with defense counsel in fact, with Lucy by her side, that the defendant took a plea to avoid trial and what no doubt would have been damning and compelling testimony from the child.
The rationale underlying the use of comfort items—including dogs—to assist vulnerable victims and witnesses stems from the judges’ responsibility to facilitate the truth-finding process. Young victims who have been traumatized often cannot fully and accurately tell their story due to the frightening nature of having to talk about very difficult details in front of strangers and their abuser. These dogs have an immediate calming effect on children and gives them the courage to give their testimony. The dogs are trained to lie still at the feet of the witnesses—ideally outside the view of the jury—for long periods of time so they will not be a distraction.
Although not all judges are ready to allow dogs inside their courtrooms, these dogs are still tremendously useful both during pre-trial interviews as well as in the waiting areas where the child benefits from the dog’s calming presence in anticipation of testifying as well as bolstering her courage to testify—knowing that this furry companion is waiting to reassure her after the ordeal of testifying.
As your District Attorney, I plan to obtain at least three dogs—one for each county—and just as importantly, I will continue to advocate for the use of these dogs in court in our district. I am committed to doing everything within my power to assist child abuse victims and help reduce the trauma of participation in the judicial system. This not only helps the victims, it also makes our community safer by ensuring that child molesters and abusers do not escape accountability due to their child victim’s inability to testify.