POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) – An upstate man was convicted Thursday of sexually assaulting a girl for four years starting when she was 10, an ordeal the girl was only able to describe while testifying with a companion dog at her side. The jury deliberated seven hours on Wednesday and Thursday before finding Victor Tohom, 36, guilty of predatory sexual assault against a child and child endangerment.
The now 15-year-old victim testified Monday that Mr. Tohom repeatedly raped her. While she spoke, she petted the 11-year-old golden retriever, Rose, who was trained to comfort troubled or distressed children. The judge allowed the dog on the stand, a first in New York, because the girl suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was unlikely to be able to testify otherwise. While the girl testified for more than an hour, Rose, the dog, could hardly be seen. When the girl was asked to point out Mr. Tohom, the dog poked her muzzle up and the girl stroked it. When she was asked to go into graphic detail about the rapes, she looked down and patted the dog.
Mr. Tohom’s lawyer, public defender David Martin, had objected to the use of the dog, saying it would create undue sympathy for the girl and distract from otherwise contradictory evidence. He said he would appeal the conviction. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, Senior Assistant District Attorney Kristine Hawlk said after the verdict that she had “no doubt” that the dog had helped the girl cope with the stress of testifying. Mr. Tohom faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
After holding a hearing in People v. Tohom, 338/2010, Dutchess County Court Judge Stephen Greller had concluded on June 1 that the child victim would suffer “serious emotional and psychological distress” if called on to testify without Rose’s support but that an appropriate instruction to the jury would minimize any prejudice to the defendant. He said that her case fell within the parameters of Executive Law §642-a, which requires trial judges to be sensitive to the stress child witnesses experience. He analogized this holding to that in People v. Gutkaiss, 206 A.D. 2d 628 (3rd Dept. 1994), a sodomy case in which the court ruled it “was entirely appropriate” to allow a child to testify while holding a teddy bear. While unprecedented in New York, advocates list 18 jurisdictions in Washington, Idaho, California, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and New Mexico with courthouse dog programs. There is a website that promotes their use www.courthousedogs.com. Rose’s regular job is helping provide therapy in schools for troubled children.