A Summit County judge on Monday cleared two girls to testify against a man accused of rape.
The younger girl, who is 7, also was afforded an unprecedented means of help.
A specially trained dog, Avery II, who was brought in to serve the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office last summer in cases in which a victim has been emotionally traumatized, accompanied the girl into court.
Avery sat at the girl’s feet inside the paneled witness box throughout her pretrial testimony to the judge before the jury entered the court.
Moments later, Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands, who is hearing the case, cleared her and the second victim, age 10, to testify against the defendant in the presence of the jury when the evidentiary phase of his trial begins this morning. Avery will accompany them.
Clayton A. George, 31, of the 2100 block of 17th Street in Akron, is charged with two counts of rape.
Avery’s appearance marked the first time he accompanied a victim testifying in a case in the county justice system. A 2-year-old yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix, he was an Aug. 17 graduate of a two-year training program at the Canine Companions for Independence regional center in suburban Columbus.
Avery made his public debut Aug. 25 in a downtown news conference with Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh. The dog’s handler gave him a series of commands to demonstrate how he can bond with a witness during testimony.
April Wiesner, chief spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, said Avery had been taken to the courthouse previously to familiarize him with the courtrooms. He had also been in court several times before as a reward for defendants who graduated from the justice system’s diversion courts for low-level drug offenders and U.S. military veterans.
George, who was indicted on the charges in September 2012, faces the possibility of life in prison. Under Ohio law, enhanced penalties apply in such rape cases when the child is under the age of 13.
The girls had to be cleared Monday, in what is known as a competency hearing, to determine if their testimony is admissible at trial.
George’s attorney, Donald R. Hicks, declined to comment on Avery’s appearance, but did file court papers last week objecting to his use.
“In the history of American jurisprudence, which covers more than two centuries, the use of a facility dog during trial is essentially unknown,” he wrote.
Hicks further argued that the dog’s presence during trial “could also potentially infer that a witness may be afraid of a defendant,” thus creating the potential of great prejudice against the defendant.
Rowlands denied the motion.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.