Diesel IV, the District Attorney's Office's court "facility dog," is on the verge of making 19th Judicial District Court history — and his own — after a judge ruled Thursday the canine can accompany a girl when she testifies next month at the trial of her alleged rapist.
The 4-year-old Labrador/golden retriever mix has previously appeared in East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court in a sex crime case involving a juvenile defendant and a child victim. But he has not yet been used in a jury trial.
That is expected to change the week of March 16 when Anthony James Tipton, 32, of Baton Rouge, stands trial on counts of first-degree rape, sexual battery and molestation of a juvenile.
Tipton is accused of repeatedly raping an 8-year-old girl in 2015 and 2016. An East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office report says the alleged sexual assaults on the child started out as requests to “snuggle."
A 29-year-old man accused of repeatedly raping an 8-year-old girl over the past six months was arrested Wednesday.
Tipton's attorney, Steven Moore, argued Thursday to state District Judge Beau Higginbotham that Diesel is nothing more than a "sympathy dog" and should not be allowed to lie at the girl's feet when she testifies. He argued, essentially, that jurors would naturally be more likely to sympathize with the girl if she had a dog sitting loyally by her side.
In the end, the judge disagreed and said Diesel is properly trained, certified and insured.
Moore is the brother of East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, whose office employs Diesel.
Louisiana law allows the use of specially trained facility dogs "to provide emotional support to witnesses testifying in judicial proceedings without causing a distraction during the proceedings."
"We're going to take advantage of that law in this case," Assistant District Attorney Sonya Cardia-Porter, who is prosecuting Tipton, told Higginbotham.
Steven Moore said there is no way to guarantee Diesel won't be a distraction to the child witness or the jury.
"I certainly don't want it to be distracting," Cardia-Porter insisted. "Diesel's job is not to be a distraction."
While Diesel's handlers — sex crimes prosecutor Louise Hines and Amy Files, a legal secretary in the District Attorney's Office's sex crimes division — testified during Thursday's hearing, Diesel didn't make a sound as he sat out of view at their feet.
Higginbotham said he leaned over and glanced at Diesel after Hines left the witness stand to make way for Files, and the dog merely looked back at him without getting up.
The judge ordered that a barrier or screen be used during the trial to prevent the jury from seeing under the witness stand when Diesel is there. He also said the dog will already be in place and out of sight when the jury enters the courtroom, and he won't be moved until the jury exits the room.
Hines, with whom Diesel lives, testified it is Diesel's job to "stay still and quiet, just be without being noticed."
"He's a dog. Sometimes he falls asleep and he snores," she acknowledged.
Moore said it would be the state's fault if a mistrial is declared because Diesel disrupted the trial by distracting the child witness or the jury.
"I'm not trying to cause a mistrial," Cardia-Porter replied.
Tipton's attorney also argued that prosecutors have not demonstrated that the child witness requires a facility dog.
"I think the dog is a sympathy dog," Steven Moore told the judge. "There's been no showing that the child needs a dog."
Diesel is on loan to the District Attorney's Office from the nonprofit group Canine Companions for Independence. The organization trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities, hearing impairments and veterans with emotional support needs, as well as for facilities like district attorneys' offices and courts.
Tipton faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if found guilty on the rape charge. He remains free on bail.