MARION, Ohio (AP) — A new program puts specially trained service dogs in the jury box to calm anxious witnesses testifying in an Ohio courtroom.
The two pooches — 6-year-old Molly B and 2-year-old Camry — are trained to lie still on the floor in the witness box to provide a more comforting environment for people testifying in the family court in Marion County, north of Columbus. Camry, a golden retriever/Labrador mix, will be a permanent addition to the court.
Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, founder of Courthouse Dogs Foundation and Molly's handler, told The Marion Star that the courtroom is one of the first in the nation to have such a facility dog. In other jurisdictions, such dogs are with prosecutors' offices or legal agencies.
"The criminal justice system is a very stressful process," she said. "Scientific research shows that dogs reduce stress in humans. In particular, when a witness has to describe a traumatic event in the courtroom, many of them feel a great deal of stress. When they're feeling that stress, it's difficult for them to describe it to the jury."
Kathy Clark, program and grant administrator with Marion County Family Court, said, "Animals lower stress levels. That's demonstrated by lower heart rates."
O'Neill-Stephens and Clark last week met with members of the legal community, mental health experts and community leaders to talk about the canine program.
O'Neill-Stephens, a former prosecutor, said the court will likely face concerns from defense attorneys about alleged victims getting sympathetic treatment by having a dog with them in the jury box.
"The judge needs to balance the needs of the witness versus any potential prejudice toward the defendant," she said.
The addition of Camry won't cost taxpayers a dime. The dog, his training and necessary equipment, estimated at $25,000, was provided free by Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit organization that provides trained dogs to people with disabilities.
Clark said she will pay the day-to-day costs for having Camry there. He'll be at the Marion County family court four days a week and live with Clark's family the rest of the time.
Courthouse Dogs Foundation operates out of Edmonds, Washington. The program has helped establish 65 facility dogs in 25 states since it was founded in 2008.