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Minnesota prosecutors to use dog to ease courthouse stress

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Officials in the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office realize the court system can be stressful for victims and witnesses of crime, so they’ve hired a new staffer to help ease the burden.

Norie, a 2-year-old golden retriever, is one of more than 200 so-called courthouse dogs nationwide that are being used to help take some of the stress and trauma out of the court process as people work through the legal system.

Tami McConkey, director of the victim witness and community services division for the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, tells Minnesota Public Radio News that dogs help calm people down and give them confidence to report what happened.

Norie, believed to be the first courthouse dog in the state, will work in the prosecutor’s office. Ramsey County District Court hasn’t signed off on the experiment yet, so for now, Norie will serve as a soothing presence before criminal proceedings. But her role is expected to expand.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said prosecutors and others understand that the justice system can add to the trauma of crime.

“Especially for those young ones that have to get up on the stand,” Choi said. “Often they’re doing it in a very, very stressful situation, where they might have to testify against their own family members, or they’re worried about what harm might come to them or their family. And so incorporating the use of the dog to make that time a little bit better for our victims and witnesses, I think is really, really important.”

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a former prosecutor in Seattle who started the courthouse dogs program in 2003, said even juvenile drug defendants told her they appreciated having a dog outside the courtroom as a calming presence.

“They know they’re going to be sanctioned,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “But they’ve got the dog there. They ask, ‘Can I have the dog with me today? This is going to be bad.’ Yes. They can be there, take their medicine and it makes a difference.”

Norie’s handler, Bill Kubes, said he’s seen how a dog can help put witnesses and victims at ease.

“I have had them say stuff in our meetings that they didn’t tell investigators or anybody else. So obviously, they’re very comfortable with her being in there,” Kubes said.

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