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Tilly : Judges, lawyers not always comfortable with comfort dog

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01/06/2018 | 06:00am CET

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. | When the Mesa County District Attorney's Office became the second prosecutor's office in Colorado to obtain a facility dog, handler Kathi Raley knew what she wanted the pup to do at work.

"My vision was that she would be involved from the beginning of these sex assault on a child cases," said Raley, the office's victim/witness coordinator who in March 2016 obtained Tilly the Labrador retriever from California nonprofit Canine Companions, which provides facility dogs free of charge to criminal justice professionals.

Raley wanted Tilly in the room to provide comfort with child victims during forensic interviews with law enforcement officers and professionals at the Western Slope Center for Children. Raley wanted her available to cuddle the kids while they met with prosecutors after criminal cases were filed. She hoped Tilly would be allowed to accompany young victims to the witness stand to testify against their abusers, to lie quietly out of sight of jurors, to lend strength and comfort.

In the 18 months since Tilly officially started work, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

While several prosecutors have requested permission, Tilly has only accompanied sex assault victims to the stand in three jury trials, each of which was presided over by District Judge Valerie Robison.

In several other cases, judges have sided with defense attorneys who objected to Tilly's presence, raising concerns about due process and the possibility that a dog could make jurors unfairly sympathetic to a child victim.

"I understand that judges have to watch out for the rights of the defendant," said Raley, who has worked in the criminal justice field for more than 20 years. "However, it is disappointing to me that she has not been used anywhere close to her full potential."

More than one judge has turned down what Raley calls a "Tilly motion," which have been filed in several types of cases.

Chief Judge Brian Flynn said no last year to Tilly accompanying the victim in the case of David Tussing, who was accused of attempting to kidnap a developmentally disabled teenager in 2015. Defense attorney Andrew Nolan argued that Tilly's presence would hinder Tussing's constitutional right to confront his accuser, and his right to a fair trial.

"A facility dog accompanying a child witness to the stand presumes the victimhood of the child witness by imparting a sense of vulnerability that may evoke sympathy from a jury before the testimony is even received," Nolan wrote. "The facility dog undermines the presumption of defendant's innocence by bolstering a child witness' image as a despondent, fragile victim in need of protection and sympathy."

In August 2016, now-retired Judge Thomas Deister denied a request that Tilly accompany multiple victims during the trial of Larry Church, who would later be convicted of sexually assaulting nine girls and women over the span of several years.

Deister agreed to allow Tilly to accompany the adult victim during the trial of Dustin Strouse, who was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor sexual offense.

However, after Deister retired, Judge Gretchen Larson reconsidered the issue and ruled against Tilly's presence.

When Tilly has been allowed to accompany a victim to the stand, it's "been really wonderful," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Springer, who prosecuted two of the three cases in which Tilly was allowed at trial.

The child victim of rapist Cory Collins had to testify before jurors twice about abuse inflicted upon her when she was just 3 1/2 years old, according to Springer. The child had already taken the stand when the judge declared a mistrial.

During the first trial, Raley said the girl had a difficult time even talking from the witness stand. At the second trial, Robison allowed then newcomer Tilly to accompany the child, lying quietly under the table and out of sight of jurors.

"She told her story, and very eloquently," Raley said. "And that individual was sentenced to prison."

Springer said the little girl's family still speaks glowingly about Tilly.

"The family's reaction to Tilly has always been amazing to me," Springer said. "The people that love that child had a lot of concerns (about her testifying)."

Tilly was also admitted during the recent trials of Dax Anderson and Larry Pitre, both in Robison's courtroom, according to court records.

On the law enforcement side, Tilly was only present during about 17 percent of forensic interviews conducted at the Western Slope Center for Children during 2017, according to figures provided by Raley and verified by the center.

Fruita Police Detective Lisa DiCamillo wrote in an email that the only reason she wouldn't use Tilly in an interview with a child victim is if the child was afraid of or allergic to dogs.

She's never had a case where Tilly was used in court, but DiCamillo has had the dog in the room with her during several interviews.

"(Kathi Raley) brings her to the interview and during the interviews, she usually sits or lays on the couch with the child," DiCamillo wrote. "From what I have observed, the child pets and strokes Tilly, who is or has been sleeping and at times snoring, which seems to lighten things up for the child and me, too."

Not all law enforcement officers are sold on Tilly as a resource to use in every forensic interview. Mesa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Megan Terlecky said her organization views Tilly as a terrific tool, but she has spoken to some investigators who haven't used the dog while interviewing a child sex assault victim.

"They explain to me that when they do these interviews, they need to create an environment that is stress-free, calming, but is also distraction-free so they can focus on the task at hand," Terlecky said. "If they can accomplish that without using any other tools . that's typically what they try to do."

Terlecky said the investigators she spoke with told her a situation where they think they've needed Tilly during an interview has yet to arise.

"The dog is an extremely useful tool as they help our victims go through the criminal justice system," Terlecky said. "The forensic interview is just one piece of that."

According to Raley, the most supportive fans of Tilly have been the community.

Children at Mesa View Elementary School took it upon themselves recently to raise money to help pay for her living expenses, which otherwise Raley covers herself.

Raley has given talks to groups including the Grand Junction Lions Club, the Rotary Club of Grand Junction and Mesa County Republican Women. Tilly was even the featured guest at the Roice-Hurst Humane Society's gala this summer, Raley said.

Raley called local support "amazing" but said she wished courtroom and interview doors were open a little more often.

"The community has been very receptive," she said. "(And) our office understands the benefits she provides, but again, it's disappointing."

© Copyright © 2018 Rapid City Journal, All rights reserved., source Newspapers

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