Washington high court rules comfort dog in court was OK

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the presence of a “comfort” dog during courtroom testimony from a developmentally disabled adult victim did not violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

In its unanimous ruling, the high court affirmed a previous Court of Appeals decision that found that the use of a golden retriever named Ellie did not create a bias against Timothy Dye, who was convicted of burglary in 2010 in Seattle. Ellie is used by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in cases usually involving children.

Douglas Lare, 56, suffers from developmental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, and functions at a mental age ranging from 6 to 12 years old, the court wrote. Ellie sat by him during his testimony in Dye’s trial.

The high court opinion, written by Justice Charlie Wiggins, found the King County Superior Court “acted within its broad discretion” when it determined Ellie was needed for the severely disabled man to testify adequately.

Wiggins noted the trial court held a previous hearing on Ellie’s use, and said the dog was not disruptive during testimony. After the trial concluded, the jury was instructed to not make any assumptions or draw any conclusions based on the dog’s presence.

“While the possibility that a facility dog may incur undue sympathy calls for caution and a conscientious balancing of the benefits and the prejudice involved, the trial court balanced the competing factors appropriately,” the opinion said.

Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote in a separate opinion that she agreed with the high court’s finding but believes “symbols matter in court.” She said the trial court should have considered “other measures to neutralize the facility dog’s powerful symbolism in support of the alleged victim.”

McCloud suggested that if the state’s key witness is accompanied by a facility dog, then a defendant should get one as well.

“The purpose of the second facility dog need not be to provide symbolic support; its sole purpose could be to symbolize a level playing field in the courtroom,” she wrote. “Alternatively, the witness might have been seated with the dog shielded from view before the jury entered the courtroom.”

Dye was the boyfriend of Lare’s neighbor, Alesha Lair. Lair started dating Lare in 2005, but did not let him know about Dye, court records show.

Lair opened several credit cards in Lare’s name and withdrew money from his retirement account. When she moved out of Lare’s apartment, she took the key with her, and according to court records, Lare woke up one day to find Dye rummaging through his apartment. A few days later Lare came home and found that his TV and other items were missing.

Court documents show Lair later pleaded guilty to theft in the first degree with the aggravating circumstance that Lare was a particularly vulnerable victim.

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