The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled on September 22, 2021, that a trial witness can be accompanied by an emotional support dog if the animal can assist with a complete, reliable, and truthful testimony. The ruling sets a precedent for future trials in the state if the judges are faced with such a petition from witnesses.
Chief Justice Max Baer wrote in his opinion that, “trial courts have the discretion to permit a witness to testify with the assistance of a comfort dog.” It added, “In exercising that discretion, courts should balance the degree to which the accommodation will assist the witness’ testimony in a truthful manner against any possible prejudice to the defender’s right to a fair trial.”
Comfort dogs or courthouse facility dogs are already allowed in several states including Maryland, Michigan, Virginia, and Connecticut.
2016 Murder Case Argument
The decision originated from a 2016 murder case in Chester County, Pennsylvania when a teenage witness with autism was allowed to use an emotional support dog to accompany her on the witness stand. In an appeal filed by the defendant, Sheron Purnell argued that the presence of the dog swayed the jury to decide on a guilty verdict.
Sheron Purnell was sentenced to 47 years for the fatal shooting of a man in Coatesville in October 2016.
During the trial, County Judge David F. Bortner allowed the witness to have a dog named Melody to help lessen the fears of a teenage girl testifying in the murder trial. The dog was brought inside the courtroom before the jurors were present and were remained hidden inside the witness stand while the girl testified.
The jurors were also instructed to not let the dog’s presence affect their decision as well as develop sympathy for the witness. On the other hand, the defendant’s lawyers argued that the judge abused his discretion and led to the defendant’s getting convicted.
The Supreme Court sided with the County Judge’s decision and found that the guilty verdict was not due to the sympathy the witness received from the jurors. The court stated, “We note that there is nothing on the record to suggest that the comfort dog was in any way disruptive to the trial.”
Dogs and other animals are increasingly used in the courtrooms to calm and comfort prosecution witnesses. Advocates of this practice say dogs, usually Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers, have made a significant difference in letting young witnesses and vulnerable adult victims open up in court. Dogs are also used to provide support to victims or witnesses during interviews or depositions.
The use of comfort dogs started way back in the 1990s in Mississippi to help child abuse victims. Dogs have handlers that train them not to be disruptive in a court setting.
The judges can also decide if the jurors can be alerted to the presence of a dog during a testimony. Studies have shown that comfort dogs have a calming effect on witnesses and victims of crimes.