Tennessee Appeals Court Rules Service Dog can be Used to Comfort Witness

May 26, 2016

From the Commercial Appeal:

By Katie Fretland of The Commercial Appeal

When a Tennessee child rape victim testified in court, a Labrador retriever mix named Murch was present for comfort.

The man convicted of raping the boy in 2014 later filed an appeal, arguing in part that the trial court was wrong for allowing the facility dog to be present. This week, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the rapist's claim.

"This is the first Tennessee case on dogs in the courtroom, and there appear to be only a few other cases in the United States on the procedure," said Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Alan E. Glenn, of Memphis, who delivered the opinion of the court in State of Tennessee v. Jose Reyes.

Murch was trained from birth for obedience and as a service animal. He is 5 years old this month, said Jennifer Wilkerson, executive director of the Upper Cumberland Child Advocacy Center in Cookeville, Tennessee.

"In a courtroom, (Murch) was to lie 'very quiet and calm,' be 'invisible,' and provide 'comfort,'" Glenn wrote.

According to the court record, Wilkerson said the victim, who was 10 at the time, was "very apprehensive and appeared very anxious, scared and frightened about the process."

"After bringing Murch in and allowing (the victim) to spend a little time with him, he seemed to immediately calm down," she said. "He was drawn to the animal, pet the dog and appeared to be a little bit more relaxed and able to focus and talk."

The appeals court found that the use of facility dogs is permitted, and cited cases from the state of Washington, California and New York.

In Washington, a golden retriever named Ellie accompanied a 56-year-old burglary victim who had a developmental disability, Glenn noted. The Washington Supreme Court approved the presence of the dog during the trial.

In a New York case, a golden retriever named Rose accompanied a girl to the witness stand to testify about being sexually assaulted and becoming pregnant by her father. The court "discounted any prejudice to the defendant from the presence of 'Rose,'" Glenn wrote.

In the Tennessee case, the victim testified Reyes raped him around the beginning of 2013 in Reyes' bedroom. Reyes had rented a room at the house of a "long-time family friend," where the victim sometimes stayed, according to the court record.

Reyes argued that the presence of the dog would be "overly prejudicial" to him.

The trial court, however, found that Murch's presence would ease the victim and that the dog would be handled in order to make his presence "as unobtrusive as possible." The court further instructed the jury that no inferences or sympathy should result from the dog's presence.

"Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in permitting the use of the facility dog, Murch, during the trial," Glenn wrote.

Following the appellate court's ruling, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said Wednesday that he will draft a jury instruction for use of comfort dogs in trials to present at a June judicial conference.

Murch, a lab and golden retriever mix, is part of a larger effort to help victims going through the judicial process. (Photo courtesy of WATE-TV via The Commercial Appeal)