Fur flies over Sacramento courtroom companion

08/16/2012 12:00 AM

08/16/2012 12:15 AM

The defense had a major problem with the prosecution's victim advocate.

He was, after all, "man's best friend," lawyer Joel Deckler argued before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard.

He was a fluffy bundle of fur with soulful brown eyes.

He was a dog, for goodness' sake.

"The presence of a dog in this trial will increase my stress" and influence jurors who are partial to pets, Deckler said.

The defense attorney wanted Reggie, a standard poodle trained to comfort victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes as they face their alleged abusers in the courtroom, barred from the witness stand.

After hearing arguments from both sides in the case last year, Gilliard ruled in the therapy dog's favor, allowing him to accompany a developmentally disabled woman to the stand during the criminal trial of the man accused of brutally assaulting her.

It would not be the last time that Reggie's presence would create a courtroom dogfight.

Since joining the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office a few years ago, Reggie has been a much sought-after, and controversial, member of the agency's Victim Witness Unit.

The dog is at the forefront of a national trend, said Marcia Christian, supervising victim advocate for the DA's Office and Reggie's primary handler.

In a growing number of states in recent years, courts have been allowing "comfort dogs" to accompany children and other vulnerable witnesses when they testify.

Christian's program is designed to help victims of violent crime repair their lives and psyches.

"For many, the crime changes their whole world view," she said. "They may be afraid to trust people, afraid of going out at night. They may have sleep disturbances or problems with relationships."

For the past two decades, through a program funded by federal and state governments, victims of violent crime have been able to get help with medical bills, counseling, funeral expenses and wage losses, among other things.

Now, in Sacramento County, they also can get access to Reggie.

Clients who request Reggie's services might call on him to sit with them in the hallway at Sacramento Superior Court as they wait to testify, or beside them during interviews at the DA's Office. If judges agree, Reggie is allowed to sit in the courtroom gallery during testimony, and take the stand with witnesses.

Scratching his head, feeling his body leaning against theirs or burying their hands in his thick fur has a soothing effect on many people, especially children, said Christian.

In a recent case, Reggie took the stand with a girl of 8 who for two days testified against her alleged molester, with the man acting as his own lawyer.

"He gave her the added confidence to walk through those doors, walk past her perpetrator and the jury, and sit up there and answer questions," said the girl's mother, whom The Bee is not identifying because of the nature of the crime against her daughter. "Reggie was there for her. He helped her to do the right thing."

The man was convicted and sentenced to prison.

But the new role of dogs in the courtroom raises some prickly legal questions.

Defense lawyers, even those who appreciate Reggie's undeniable cuteness and regal manner, argue that "comfort dogs" give the prosecution an unfair advantage because they help create empathy for alleged crime victims.

"I like Reggie," Deckler confessed when asked about his case last year. "My wife and I, our next dog may be a standard poodle. But this was a unique situation and I had to protect my client's rights."

Prosecutors and victim advocates insist that the therapy dogs provide a crucial service to witnesses who are facing the intimidating prospect of testifying in court. They also point out that jurors who fear, dislike or are allergic to dogs may be influenced in the opposite direction, aiding the defense.

"Children cannot always verbalize their anxieties and their fears to us," said Sacramento County victim advocate Tatiana Morfas, who offers Reggie's services to all of her clients.

"Once they connect with Reggie, you can see their faces change. He makes them comfortable and secure in an environment that can be really scary and traumatic."

In her ruling regarding Reggie last year, Gilliard said she sought to strike a balance between the constitutional right of the defendant to get a fair trial and the disabled accuser's need for support.

She decided, in agreement with prosecutor Nancy Cochrane, that the alleged victim should be allowed to have Reggie with her when she took the witness stand.

Tall and imposing at 72 pounds, with light brown fur and a pom-pom tail, Reggie draws stares, smiles and shrieks of surprise during his rounds at the downtown courthouse.

"Well, you don't see that every day," a juror remarked as she stepped off the elevator and ran smack into Morfas and Reggie, on a leash and wearing a baby blue vest identifying him as a service dog. Lawyers stop to pat him. Security guards slip him treats.

"He's like a living stuffed animal," marveled DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio.

For the little girl whom Reggie accompanied in the molestation trial, he is that and so much more, her mother said.

"Reggie was such a surprise and such a delight to us," she said. "He took her stress away. God bless Reggie."

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