Calhoun, a 9-year-old golden retriever-Labrador mix, might become the first “comfort dog” to accompany an alleged victim during testimony at trial in Butte-Silver Bow County.
Prosecutor Samm Cox wants District Judge Brad Newman to let Calhoun sit at the feet of a young girl who says the defendant sexually assaulted her, and it appears the dog just might be her security blanket.
Montana does not have a law specifically allowing that, but Newman says there are statutes to help make child witnesses more comfortable at trial. For example, they can testify remotely through audio and video in some circumstances.
The rights of the defendant must be equally considered and protected, too. Dogs can tug at jurors’ hearts, or growl and stare down suspects, or do other distracting things.
But Calhoun was calm and quiet and sweet during a trial appearance in court Monday, leading even the defense attorney in the case — Walter Hennessey — to say after the hearing, “He’s about as mellow as you can get.”
The idea is to help calm witnesses or alleged victims so they can more readily recall events and give reliable, unimpeded testimony.
“Good morning, Calhoun,” Newman said from the bench as the dog sat quietly at the back of the courtroom next to his longtime handler and companion, Joy Lucero.
Calhoun’s appearance at trial next month is not a sure thing yet. Among other considerations, Newman asked Hennessey and Cox to suggest instructions he could give jurors about not making any judgments based on Calhoun.
Hennessey said his primary concern is that the girl testify in person so he can question her, too, on behalf of his client, 31-year-old Matthew Joseph Rodriguez.
As those issues were being discussed, Cox noted the obvious.
“As you can see, he’s kind of laid back,” he told the judge.
After 30 minutes or so, Newman had reached the same conclusion.
”I think as exhibited, Calhoun is not a distraction,” he said.
Rodriguez is charged with sexual intercourse without consent for allegedly sexually assaulting the girl on at least three occasions between April and June 2015. The girl was 6 at the time.
Because of her age, a conviction carries a 100-year prison term and 25 of them cannot be suspended or deferred and must be served before parole is possible.
Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty and, in a letter he sent to the clerk of courts, said the girl’s mother fabricated the allegations and he has been “grotesquely accused of a crime I did not commit …”
The trial is set for June 18 and on Monday, before Calhoun was discussed, Newman reduced bail from $100,000 to $10,000 with GPS monitoring and other restrictions on Hennessey’s recommendation and an OK from Cox.
As to Calhoun, Cox told Newman that a “comfort dog” had been utilized in district courts in Ravalli and Yellowstone counties in Montana and the girl in this case had apprehensions about testifying at trial.
Prosecutors and investigators have used comfort dogs, including Calhoun, during forensic interviews of victims and witnesses conducted with assistance from the Butte Child Evaluation Center.
Cox said prosecutors here “have been waiting for the right time” to seek help from a comfort dog during a trial, and this was that time.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Attorney Ben Krakowka has a schnauzer-Yorkshire terrier mix named Charlie, who also will be featured soon in The Montana Standard, who helps comfort victims and witnesses. But he hasn’t been in court during trial — not yet, anyway.
Lucero was a detective for the Phoenix Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit and wrote a program for using comfort dogs there. She is retired and lives in Philipsburg now, with Calhoun, and makes him available when possible.
Labs and goldens are among the friendliest of dog breeds, but about $50,000 still went into training Calhoun as a facility dog through an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, Lucero said.
Facility dogs know more than 40 commands and are trained to be trustworthy in professional settings and give unconditional love and attention to clients — in this case the young girl.
“He is really a comfort to kids,” Cox said.