The twins were seven, shy and scared. Talking was tough and describing what
happened nearly impossible. So the prosecutor preparing them to testify against the father they said
molested them borrowed a dog named Jeeter.
"It was a last ditch effort to try to build rapport with my kids, who are
terribly shy," said Kelly Dempsey, the twins' mother. "The prosecutor had no
idea how to get through to them. He just believed down to the depths of his soul
the girls had been wronged and he wanted so badly to find justice for them."
In Seattle 10 years ago, Jeeter became the first professionally trained dog
to help a child testify, experts said. Dogs have been used with thousands of
victims and witnesses since.
Challenges facing courthouse dogs
Today, there are 41 courthouse dogs working in 19 US states and several more
being considered, but some challenges are working their way through the courts,
driven by attorneys who claim the dogs are distractions or sympathy magnets. So
far, all lower courts have upheld the use of dogs.
In 2003, Jeeter was going to drug court once a week with King County deputy
prosecutor Ellen O'Neill-Stephens. The rest of the week, Jeeter belonged to her
son Sean, 21, who has cerebral palsy.
When her colleague asked to borrow Jeeter for the twins, the bonding was
"Because of Jeeter and having him there, I don't ever think about 'Oh, it was
scary walking in and seeing our dad after a while,'" said Erin, now a high
school sophomore. "I don't remember the bad, I only remember Jeeter. I think we
escaped so much more normal than really we should have from such a bad situation
because of Jeeter."
The AP normally doesn't use names or photos of molestation victims, but the
girls are allowing their first names and photos to be used because they want
dogs to be available in courts. Their mother has a different last name.
Jeeter shadowed the girls. "I remember sitting in the chair. Between
questions, he'd put his head in my lap and cuddle a little. One time (during a
practice court session), he came into the room dressed as Zorro," Erin said.
When there were questions about anatomy, the girls used Jeeter.
"A good dog provides decreased anxiety for any victim, be it a child, adult
or elderly. If it gives them the opportunity to focus and find their voice, how
is that bad?" Dempsey asked.
There were no objections to Jeeter in the twins' case, and demand for a dog
was so high that in 2004, the district attorney's office got a full-time service
Training the dogs
Jeeter and Ellie were trained by Canine Companions for Independence,
headquartered in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco.
CCI has trained about 230 "facility dogs," including courthouse dogs and
those working at burn centers, hospices or schools. The dogs are mostly Labrador
or golden retrievers or mixes, said Jeanine Konopelski, CCI's national director
Five years ago, O'Neill-Stephens was so sure that victims and witnesses would
benefit from a good dog in court that she founded Courthouse Dogs Foundation in
honour of her son. She retired in 2011 to devote full-time to it.
O'Neill-Stephens and Courthouse Dogs Foundation Executive Director Celeste
Walsen are also helping set up programmes in Canada, Chile and Finland, and to
standardise the training for courthouse dogs.
Face up to
The next challenge to the dogs is scheduled mid-May in Washington state's
The case involves a man convicted of burglarising a Seattle apartment in
2008. Because the victim had the mental skills of a child, he was allowed to use
Ellie when he testified.
An appeals court upheld the use of the dog, so attorney Jan Trasen with the
Washington Appellate Project took the case to the higher court.
Trasen contends there is no precedent for using a dog in court. The state
says it's covered by a law that allows vulnerable witnesses to hold a Teddy bear
Trasen said you can't compare the two, because "those items are all inanimate
objects. They don't move. They don't look you in the eye. They don't respond to
the human voice. I have a dog, I love dogs. It's actually for that very reason,
I know how well people respond to them."
A ruling is pending in a similar case argued before an appellate court in New
Jurors in the twins' case were unable to reach a verdict, so a mistrial was
declared. Before a second trial could begin, the girls' father pleaded guilty to
third- and fourth-degree assault.
"He didn't end up serving any time. He was held accountable in a way that
other people deemed appropriate. But he was removed from the girls' lives, so
really, I couldn't ask for anything better," Dempsey said.
In November, 2004, as the trial finished, the twins signed up to raise a
puppy with CCI — to thank O'Neill-Stephens and Jeeter. They got Alou and took
him to puppy classes, helped socialise him and taught him commands.
"We felt empowered because we could help somebody the way Jeeter helped us,"
Alou was nearly two when he left for advanced training and placement, but nine
months later the family got a call asking if they wanted Alou back. He was
unable to take commands from a variety of handlers.
"It's like he'd never been gone," Jordan said. "Mom opened the door and he
came bounding out and jumped in the car and loved us. I think he was meant to be a service dog to Erin and Jordan," Dempsey
He's nine now and sleeps a lot. "But even today, he will seek out somebody
feeling bad in the family and curl up at their feet," she said.