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News

Comfort Dogs Allowed For Some During Criminal Trials, PA Supreme Court Rules

Comfort dogs will be allowed in criminal trials, but only under certain conditions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
Comfort dogs will be allowed in criminal trials, but only under certain conditions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday. Photo Credit: File photo: Cecilia Levine

Comfort dogs will be allowed in criminal trials, but only under certain conditions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

To avoid any potential prejudice to the defendant's right to a fair trial, a comfort dog may accompany a trial witness if the animal will allow the witness to testify in a reliable and truthful manner.

The ruling stems from a 2018 murder trial in Chester County where Melody, a comfort dog, was allowed to sit next to a child witness during testimony, according to the Chester County District Attorney's Office.

Sheron Jaeln Purnell was found guilty of the 2016 murder of Kevin Jalbert in Coatesville. Commonwealth vs. Purnell was the catalyst for the comfort dog ruling.

Prior to the trial, Deputy District Attorney Emily Provencher requested permission from the court to have a comfort dog accompany an autistic child witness who was afraid to testify about the murder, the DA's office said.

Judge David Bortner ruled in favor of using a witness comfort dog, which the jury did not see during the trial.

The Purnell case was initially appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the grounds that the comfort dog had elicited sympathy from the jury and the state had failed to establish the dog's necessity.

The trial judge did not abuse his discretion in allowing the comfort dog, according to the court. The court devised a balancing test to assess the extent to which the use of a comfort dog will aid the witness in testifying truthfully.

The issues in the case had never been addressed by a Pennsylvania court before.

“This is a big victory for victims and witnesses throughout the Commonwealth. Comfort dogs can provide a great deal of support to vulnerable victims and witnesses – particularly children – and can help them overcome their anxiety or fear about testifying in a trial," Chester County DA Deb Ryan said.

"Our goal as prosecutors is to bring out the truth and determine what happened. For some victims and witnesses, the aid of a comfort dog gives them the strength to tell their story and their truth. This is another important tool in our pursuit of justice.”

As of 2021, comfort dogs are allowed in 16 other states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington, according to Michigan State University College of Law.

Deputy District Attorney Erik T. Walschburger argued the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

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