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State appeals court affirms use of "support dogs" in courtrooms

Berrien County Sheriff's office
via Facebook

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals ruling paves the way for using “support dogs” in courtrooms.

The ruling stems from the case of a Berrien County man, Jordan Conrad Johnson, convicted of sexually abusing his young niece.

During his trial, the girl and her brother both testified accompanied by a black lab named Mr. Weeber.

The dogs are trained to calm and comfort vulnerable witnesses, particularly young children, and help them testify.

In Johnson’s appeal, he claimed the dog’s presence prejudiced the jury and compromised his trial.

But the appeals court rejected his claim that the dog’s presence was “inherently prejudicial,” noting that Mr. Weeber laid quietly at the children’s feet as they testified.

“There is no indication that Mr. Weeber was visible to the jury while the witnesses testified, or that he barked, growled, or otherwise interrupted the proceedings or made his presence known to the jury,” the court wrote.

The court also noted that Michigan law allows a “support person” to accompany some witnesses, and courts can take other protective measures that are arguably more prejudicial than a support dog.

Dan Cojanu, founder and director of the Canine Advocacy Program in Michigan, said he’s “thrilled” by the ruling.

He says that most judges already permitted support dogs based on state court rules, “but now we actually have case law, which is absolutely critical.”

Furthermore, the ruling “affirms the fact that these dogs are very valuable parts of the criminal justice system, that they are helping child victims get through this system without jeopardizing the rights of the defendant,” Cojanu said.

Cojanu says he hopes the legal precedent will expand the use of support dogs in Michigan.

There are currently 19 support dogs working in Michigan courts, with an additional four dogs working in the state’s veterans courts.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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