A Golden Retriever recently accompanied a sexual assault survivor to the witness stand in St. Cloud, Minnesota. It was the first time a facility dog provided comfort to a witness in a Minnesota courtroom.
Golden Retriever comforts sexual assault survivor during trial
According to the Star Tribune, a dog named Nova provided comfort to a 15-year-old girl in a Stearns County District courtroom. The canine companion remained by the girl’s feet during five hours of testimony about the sexual assault 39-year-old Jairo Missael Fernandez Sorto inflicted on her over several years. Ultimately, Fernandez Sorto was sentenced to a 30-year prison sentence for rape.
Assistant County Attorney Jamie Reinschmidt, who prosecuted the case, said that the survivor “would not have had the emotional stamina to focus on the questions as thoughtfully and as clearly as she was able to” without Nova’s presence.
“Nova just gave her a calming effect, which obviously was the desired effect,” he said.
Furthermore, Reinschmidt believes that without Nova’s support, it would have been so difficult for the girl to testify that “we would have had to dismiss the case.”
Unfortunately, not everyone was on board with a furry bystander in the courtroom. The defense argued that the dog would “elicit undue sympathy among the jurors,” according to the Star Tribune.
Thankfully, Judge Laura Moehrle ruled that the Goldie could attend the trial.
“The court finds that Nova’s presence would assist [the girl] in reducing her anxiety and increase her sense of calm, and thus increase her ability to testify completely and accurately,” the judge wrote. “The helpfulness of Nova’s presence to [the girl] outweighs any potential risk of prejudice to the defendant.”
There were some parameters around the dog’s participation, however. Nova had to be out of the jury’s view during the entire testimony. Nova’s handler, Keli Tautman, sat on the floor next to the dog and the girl during the proceedings.
Nova served for the duration of the trial. At sentencing this week, the survivor broke down in tears. Afterward, in a separate room, Nova comforted the girl.
Dogs becoming more common in courtrooms
Helping Paws, a nonprofit in Hopkins, Minnesota, trained Nova for 2 ½ years. In October 2019, the organization placed the pup with Trautman, who is also a paralegal and victim witness coordinator with County Attorney’s Office.
Since that time, Nova has been a comfort to many witnesses and victims in pre-trial prep as well as before and after victim testimony. However, this was Nova’s first “assignment” in court.
The practice of allowing four-legged friends into courtrooms is gaining popularity across the country. Fifteen other states allow dogs to support witnesses in a similar way during legal proceedings.
Nova already has another appointment in court. On Monday, she will assist an 11-year-old girl testifying against a 37-year-old man in another sexual assault trial.