Dogs Give Prosecutors a Hand in Difficult Cases
By Casey McNerthney
Originally published in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 03, 2007
Child interview specialist Ashley Wilske sat across from the 5-year- old boy and told him Ellie was there to help.
He didn't have to answer if he felt pressured, Wilske said.
But a statement from the boy, who along with his mother had been assaulted by her boyfriend, was necessary for the prosecutor to build a case in the attack. The boy already had refused to talk with a caseworker and a therapist.
Suddenly, with his right arm wrapped around Ellie, the boy interrupted Wilske: Could he tell them what happened? Nestled closely next to Ellie, he offered disturbing details that eventually led to a guilty plea.
Later, alone with her, he leaned close to Ellie and told the nationally renowned yellow Lab/Golden Retriever that he loved her.
"I'm not sure he would have talked if Ellie weren't there," Wilske said of the nation's first dog specifically assigned to a prosecutor's office.
The idea to use dogs like Ellie in such cases evolved when a King County senior deputy prosecutor occasionally brought her son's service dog to work when he wasn't needed at home. That dog, Jeeter, and Ellie, who has had the same training, gradually became involved in dozens of child interviews and drug-related court cases, plus a handful of trials.
Although Jeeter wasn't available to work at the office full time, Ellie was placed there in December 2004.
Prosecutor's offices around the nation—including Texas, Georgia, Montana and Florida—have sought information from King County about starting similar programs.
Wilske now works in the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office, which in November became the second prosecutor's office with a dog like Ellie specifically assigned to it.
Last week, a University of Baltimore associate professor interviewed King County prosecutors, judges and police for a related case study.
"The dogs help us break down the barriers of fear, distrust and anxiety so we can get to the truth," said interim county prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who volunteered to pick up Ellie's vet bills. "I think this has been an essential part of our office, and I think other offices will have the same experience."
As puppies, dogs like Ellie train for up to 18 months, with volunteers, to learn commands, then go through six months of advanced training at the California-based Canine Companions for Independence, which matches the dogs with partners at no cost. King County applied to the organization, and Ellie was placed there; Jeeter also came from Canine Companions.
Ellie lives with Page Ulrey, who was the Juvenile Unit chairwoman until Friday, but this week starts a job prosecuting elderly abuse cases.
Ulrey, who pays for the dog's food—about $60 a month—plans to use Ellie in her work with elderly victims.
"Having the dogs around makes us all a little more human," Satterberg said.
Jeeter's first jury trial was in 2003. King County senior deputy prosecutor Tod Bergstrom needed testimony from two 7-year-old victims in a molestation case, but no matter how he tried—sharing pictures of horses, sitting on the floor to talk at eye level—the girls weren't responding.
"They had been assaulted by a man, and all of a sudden they started to look at men differently," their mother said last week.
Running out of options, Bergstrom sought help from fellow senior deputy prosecutor Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, whose son has cerebral palsy and is assisted by Jeeter. He asked the judge in the case to allow Jeeter on the stand while the girls, who were terrified in the courtroom, testified.
Several Seattle defense attorneys have said that while they love dogs, they'd object because they might sway jurors.
"The unintended message is something we have to be very aware of," King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector said, noting that allergies, fear and delay of jury selection are other factors that might prevent other offices from expanding the program.
But in the girls' case, the defense didn't object. When the Lab/Golden Retriever sensed the girls getting tense, he put his head on their laps. One rubbed his back throughout the cross-examination. Even the prosecutor patted the dog when the trial got tense.
It ended with guilty verdicts on two assault counts.
Because of their experience, the girls, now 12, volunteered to raise a similar dog through the organization that placed Ellie.
"Without Jeeter they never would have testified," their mother said.
"They never would have said a word. They wouldn't be where they are now."
©2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Want to read about the hero dogs who preceded Jeeter and Ellie? Click here to read about Sheba and click here to read about Vachss (the dog).
And, now, Sheba's legacy goes international! See latest from Canada.