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Ben Matlock, the Atlanta-based fictional attorney portrayed by Andy Griffith in the eponymous television show Matlock, tried dozens if not hundreds of fictional cases.  Each (with some exception) followed a similar pattern. Matlock, in his pale blue suit, would represent one of a seemingly endless list of clients wrongly accused of murders but with a weak alibi.  The case starts to go well, until — as Matlock surprisingly discovers (causing him to make this face) — that someone has a deep, dark secret, such as an affair, etc., which derails Matlock’s theory as to who is the true murderer.

But Matlock wins in the end, due to some convoluted twist involving absurd facts and legal proceeding which could not exist in the real world.  Take, for example, the following.  Matlock sought to demonstrate that someone other than his client was guilty of the murder committed and found a unique witness: the victim’s dog.  Matlock brought the dog to the courthouse, and the dog saw (smelled?) the person Matlock and his client believed was the true murderer.  The dog barked like a lunatic and the jury, finding reasonable doubt that Matlock’s client was guilty of the crime, acquitted the accused.

Fiction? Surely.  But in the case of Rosie, a golden retriever, there is a kernel of truth to the story.

Rosie, per the New York Times, is a “therapy dog who specializes in comforting people when they are under stress.” And recently, she went to work in a courthouse, during a trial, sitting alongside a 15 year old girl who was on the witness stand, testifying that her father had raped and impregnated her.  (The father was on trial for the crimes associated with these allegations.)  The father was convicted, and the daughter, per her psychologist, thanked Rosie immensely.

But Rosie’s role in the courthouse is not without controversy.  While prosecutors and others argue that the dog enables witnesses to testify in and about situations which they would otherwise avoid, defense attorneys wonder aloud of juries are being unintentionally misled by the dog. After all, they argue, the dog — cuddling up to a witness and being pet — injects credibility upon the witness which may be undue, and cannot be easily distilled from the testimony.  (As one defense attorney noted, you can’t cross-examine a dog.)  Prosecutors argue that this concern is overstated at best and the dog serves a much greater purpose, and, as advocacy site CourthouseDogs.com believes, the dogs “promote justice” which would be woefully absent without the animals’ inclusion.  And the gusto with which courthouse dog supporters believe this to be the case should not be taken lightly; after all, Rosie is named for famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

The defense team in the aforementioned rape case is appealing — understandably, especially given the novelty of Rosie’s inclusion. There is a very good chance that the New York State Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — will end up deciding the matter.  And if dogs are similarly used in federal trials, perhaps one day Rosie and her canine friends will be the subject of a Supreme Court decision.

Bonus fact: If a courthouse dog case were to go to the Supreme Court, the dog would not be a party to the case. But in another situation, dogs could, in theory, be a named party. That situation? Civil asset forfeiture claims. There, the government brings a civil (that is, non-criminal) action against an alleged criminal’s property, claiming that the property was used in the furtherance of a crime.  Note that the case is not brought against the alleged criminal but, in fact, against the property itself.  This leads to odd sounding case names such as United States v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency, a real case decided in 2005.

From the Archives: Shaq Attack: Maybe one day, Rosie will be there in court with Shaquille O’Neal, police officer, at the same time.

RelatedMatlock – The First Season on DVD. $27.59.

Originally published

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