Massachusetts bill aims to open door to dogs in courtroom

BOSTON – There are new efforts in Massachusetts to open the door to dogs in the courtroom.

A bill filed by Senator Bill Tarr (R- Gloucester) would allow minors or those with a developmental disability testifying about a violent crime to be accompanied by a professionally trained service dog on the stand.

Proponents point to the stress of having to testify in front of a courtroom about a potentially traumatic experience under the pressure of trial proceedings.

“In the United States of America, children as young as 4 years of age have to testify in court as though they were an adult. As you might imagine, when they get overwhelmed, they shut down and can’t speak,” said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a former Washington state prosecutor.

O’Neill-Stephens was pivotal in legalizing similar legislation in Washington among other states.

She founded Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which works to provide survivors with these highly trained dogs during the investigation and prosecution of crimes.

“While the dogs are with them it makes them feel calmer and better able to describe what happened,” she said. “We advise dogs be placed in witness box with witness, out of view of the jurors so when that when the jury comes into the courtroom they can’t even see the dog.”

However, longtime Massachusetts defense attorney Peter Elikann is among those who believe a dog’s presence could be an automatic detriment to someone’s defense.

“I’m one of the greatest dog lovers of all time and even I would have a problem with having dogs in the courtroom because it’d be way too prejudicial. Every juror in the courtroom is going to side with the person who has the dog,” he said.

Elikann said he worries that the set-up of many courtrooms in the Bay State could make it tough to keep an emotional support dog out of the jury’s view.

He feels the newly filed Massachusetts bill poses a risk of distracting jurors from the truth.

“Juries are going to have a great deal of sympathy for someone who is so distraught they need a dog,” he said.

A spokesperson said Senator Tarr filed the bill on behalf of a constituent, something he routinely does, and he doesn’t have a position on the issue.


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