All posts by Liz Spruin

Oscar unable to convince judges “it’s raining”

In a country where 50 people are murdered every day, with only half of all murder cases being sent to court, and a shocking 12% of which result in a guilty verdict (South Africa Statistics Association, 2015), South Africa is considered the ‘the most murderous society on earth’ (Nedcore Project, 2015). The South Africa Statistics Association (SASA) recently revealed that next to war torn countries, the high murder rate makes this country the worse conflicted area in the world (McCafferty, 2015). The statistics speak for themselves, it is clear that the South African Criminal Justice System is failing. Arguably, that was until yesterday… perhaps things are starting to change in a society that is deemed to have the highest rates of violence against women in the world (Faul, 2013).

For over two years, millions of people across the world have watched the South African Justice System unfold in the Oscar Pistorius trail. Prosecution and defence have traded blows over what happened the night Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The reason as to why Pistorius shot four deadly blows through a locked bathroom on 14 February 2013 is likely to remain a mystery. Whether Pistorius knew it was Steenkamp behind the bathroom door, or an intruder, will perhaps be debated for years. But the shock that exploded across the world when Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide, spending only one year in prison from taking an innocent life, was uncontested. Indeed, in one survey only 7% of the British public believed him to be innocent (Dalgreen, 2015).

In my opinion, yesterday, the courts in South Africa have made an unprecedented leap in the justice system, when Pistorius’ original verdict was overturned and replaced with murder. This conviction (which carries a minimum of 15 years in South Africa) comes unanimously from five judges, stating that Pistorius ‘never offered an acceptable explanation’ for firing four times through closed doors. Although we may never know exactly what happened the night Steenkamp was killed, one thing is certain, the logistics of Pistorius’ account is by all means a far stretch of the imagination. Perhaps Judge Judy summed it up best when she stated that defendants provide such elaborate stories…‘don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining’.

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Follow up: Dogs in the Courtroom and Forensic Psychology

This guest post is by Sessional Lecturer Nicole Holt

For the first time at Christ Church University, a lecture (in the second year forensic and investigative psychology module) was given on the use of dogs in forensics. The focus then moved onto the use of dogs in the court rooms. Not only that, two charming greyhound reading doggies in training came and joined us! (Thank you, Olivia Noble.)

The main uses of dogs in forensics and policing more generally include: sniffer dogs/drug detection, search and rescue, tracking, training, fieldwork, victim recovery, explosion detection, arson detection and, of course, most people’s favourite – therapy doggies which can be used in prisons, court rooms, waiting rooms, and counselling.

Dogs have been used by law enforcement agencies for over 100 years. Bloodhounds were used when searching for Jack the Ripper in 1888, and during that time they allowed canines to accompany police on patrol (Bell, 2004). However, more broadly, written recognition of the relationships of human–animal bonding dates to the 1700s in York, England, where the Society of Friends established a facility called The Retreat to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill. It was recognised that having patients care for the many farm animals on the estate would aid in the patients’ rehabilitation (Hart-Cohen, 2009). Furthermore, others throughout history note the benefits of dogs such as Florence Nightingale. This then eventually led onto the use of pet therapy animals being more widely accepted and charities set up to provide these facilities. This finally led to dogs being used in court rooms in America.

It would appear that one of the original courthouse dogs to aid young victims was a German shepherd named Vachss, used by the Children’s Advocacy Centre (CAC) in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, in the 1990s. In 1994 Vachss was presented with the Hero of the Year award for his role comforting children in the courtroom while they testified in abuse cases. The way in which a dog in the court room helps is that the dog tends rests at the victim’s feet during every interview and also sits with people outside the courtroom as they wait to testify. Some go up to the witness stand with a person and stands beside them at sentencing (Wallick, 2005). Sometimes people who are due to come to court go to see the dogs and bond with the dogs prior to attending.

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. Therefore our next step is to explore the use of trained therapy/reading dogs in certain environments like court waiting rooms and, after our lecture, we have some keen students who are very willing to help us! We really feel this is an area which would be worth further exploration. We truly hope that in the next 20 years dogs will become a regular feature in UK courts across the country after all… it’s time our friends with paws had their day in court!

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Dogs in the Courtroom?

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. A horror movie come true. You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world turns upside down; your body trembles in fear, your mind stunned with fright. Physically, mentally and wholeheartedly overwhelmed, you drop to the floor and cry out ‘Why me?’ Whilst the shock of the ordeal is still in the forefront of your mind and your whole body still imprisoned by terrorized fear, you are asked by prosecutors to relive the experience that completely paralyses your core; even worse, you are asked to recount the event in a courtroom of strangers. Emotionally destroyed, you look over and see your attacker staring at you, the defence counsel pressuring you to hurry up your testimony. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, as you are asked by prosecutors to provide a detailed account of your nightmare, a special dog rests at your feet in the courtroom. The same dog waited with you outside the courtroom as you prepared to testify – walked by your side as you made your way to the witness stand – stands beside you when the jury makes their verdict – and accompanies you when the court hands down their sentence. At each stage of the ordeal you look down at your four-legged friend, stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. You feel calm knowing that your friend is there for you, providing you the strength to get through your nightmare.

Whilst this scenario is merely an example of what could happen if the UK court system allowed the use of trained dogs in the courtroom, it opens up the potential for alternative forms of support in courtrooms around the country. This idea may be new to the UK but it has been successfully implemented in a number of States across America.

Advocates from the Courthouse Dogs Foundation (2015) in America proclaim that when a person is reliving a traumatic event, they experience physiological reactions similar to what they had when the event was taking place, so involving dogs to support these victims during this ordeal is a type of therapeutic jurisprudence that helps to calm and support many victims. Stephens (2011) pointed out that, typically, the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head, which often provides comfort. Uncontestably, studies (e.g., Sandoval, 2010) have confirmed that animate touch (e.g., holding a dogs leash or petting a dog while testifying) often leads to a psychological sense of well being, decreased anxiety, lowered heart rate, increased speech and memory functions, and heightened mental clarity.

Along with supporters arguing that the use of service dogs in the courtroom can be very useful in helping reduce stress to emotionally traumatized witnesses. More recently, it has been contended that the use of dogs in the courtroom can further aid in securing more witness testimony, as victims who may otherwise refuse to testify due to the stress of the ordeal are being provided with more support and comfort than before. This could ultimately lead to a boom in the criminal justice system, as more criminals could be brought to justice (Dellinger, 2009).

Despite the growing success in America of using dogs in the courtroom, it is an area that has not been heavily explored within the UK. The question as to why remains uncertain to me. In my opinion, if dogs have been shown to provide comfort to victims, reduce their stress and make them calmer in a legal system that is a direct descended of the English courts, then surly this is something we should consider within our own courts. Sure, opponents could argue that the presence of a dog assisting a witness in court prejudices the jury’s perception of the witness. The use of a dog may signal that the witness is frail and weak and result in undue jury sympathy that then interferes with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But courts could counter argue that historically witnesses have always been entitled to comfort items when providing evidence, from blankets and dolls to relatives and support advocates. A dog in the courtroom can simply be viewed as another comfort item.

The law is not and should not be static. The proof is always in the pudding and in this instance it is clear that court service dogs provide important benefits to both the prosecution and defence. The courts in America have already recognised this and its time that the UK, at the very least, explore the benefits of allowing the use of service dogs for emotionally traumatized witnesses.

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