Simon is only three years old but already an indispensable staffer at his office, where he has displayed a knack for helping abused children navigate an intimidating legal system.
He is also a lean, jet-black Labrador Retriever.
Simon’s job is to comfort children testifying or being interviewed in court cases, a normally stressful environment. His boss, Diane Silman, head of the Ozark Foothills Child Advocacy Center in southern Missouri, said Simon has helped more than 300 children brave pre-trial interviews and accompanies them to court when necessary.
Dogs have been used to comfort victims and witnesses — particularly children — in and out of the courtroom for more than 20 years, and the practice has become relatively common in a handful of states over the last decade.
Until recently, courtroom dogs faced little more than preliminary objections from defense attorneys. But earlier this summer, Stephen Levine, a New York lawyer, became the first in the nation to appeal his client’s conviction of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl because a dog was used to comfort her during her testimony at trial.
The girl testified with the aid of Rosie, a Golden Retriever who has worked with emotionally troubled children for years but was only recently recruited into the legal system.
In his appeal, Levine said that the use of the dogs can affect testimony.
“The stress witnesses feel when they have to testify at trial tends to undo falsehoods,” said Levine, a public defender in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Removing the stress deprives the defendant of a fair trial.”
But one of the early pioneers of using comfort dogs said Levine is “grasping at straws.”
“The dog is not giving the witness the answers,” said Andrew Vachss, an attorney who exclusively represents children.
He and his wife, Alice, former head of the Queens District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, first began using a dog to comfort traumatized children during interviews by prosecutors in 1987.
In the case now under appeal, Vachss said he is confident the court will side with advocates of courtroom dogs, setting an important precedent.
But Levine and lawyer David Martin, who represent the accused rapist, argue judges are creating law by allowing dogs in their courtrooms — decisions better left to state lawmakers.
“If you want to use these dogs, go to your legislature, hold public hearings and then determine what’s in the best interest of all the parties concerned,” Martin said.
Levine said he does not expect a ruling on the appeal until next year at the earliest.
The judge’s decision in the case will likely affect the courtroom use of the dogs nationwide.