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Stilson Comforts at Sentencing

Courtroom dog comforts victims at defendant's sentencing
By Rebecca Wallick, August 2009, Updated June 2021

Awhile ago I wrote an article for Bark about prosecuting attorneys’ innovative use of service dogs with victims of crime. Since then, I’ve become a prosecuting attorney in one of the counties I highlighted. I thought I’d check in on Stilson--and take Bark’s readers along--as he performed a routine part of his job. These dogs never stop giving; they're simply amazing.


The trial is over, the defendant convicted by a jury. The victim and his family are recovering, physically and emotionally. Now it’s time for sentencing. They must see that man again, who did so much damage, hear him speak.



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Stilson helps them through it.


Stilson is the five-year-old facility dog utilized by the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Victim/Witness Advocate, Heidi Potter. He’s a handsome black lab who has an instinct for comfort. (See Dogs in the Courtroom.)


A jury found the defendant guilty of first degree assault, with a firearm enhancement. What that really means, on a human level, is this: Some kids and their uncle--from their car on the road--watched a deer on their neighbor’s property; the neighbor accused them of spinning their wheels; when the kids’ father heard about it and went to talk to the neighbor the next day, he was shot in the face.


Stilson attended the trial in his special role as canine advocate. Mostly, he stayed in the hallway with the kids and their mom as the kids waited to testify. He invited them to stroke and hug him, to play and be distracted from the awfulness they were being asked to relive.


The victim, a handsome man of about 40, has few remaining visible scars of his ordeal. His wife and kids hover nearby as all nervously await the start of the hearing. They take a bench in the large courtroom, forming a long row of emotional support for each other. Heidi hands Stilson to another victim advocate, who places his lead into the victim’s hands. The victim smiles and visibly relaxes, petting Stilson, an old friend. Quietly, Stilson lies at his feet, squeezing himself between the rows of benches, providing a calming presence without being intrusive or demanding. No commands are given by Heidi or the other advocate. Stilson simply knows what to do.


The defendant is led into the courtroom in shackles, wearing the standard jail garb. He’s older, thin, bent, disheveled. He stands facing the bench; his two attorneys flank him, whispering. Deputies stand nearby, guarding. The victim and his wife tense, watching intently from their seats several yards back, waiting, wondering.


The judge enters, takes the bench, and the proceeding begins. The prosecutor outlines the sentence she seeks. The victim goes forward to address the court, giving his impact statement. He’s brief. “I’m not a hateful person. I teach my kids not to hate. I don’t hate the man, but I feel hate for what he did.” He notes that the ordeal has been harder on his wife and kids than on him. He’s disturbed that the defendant doesn’t feel any remorse. “I want to move on, living, loving and laughing,” the victim concludes. He returns to his seat, stepping over Stilson, who hasn’t moved, and resumes holding the lead, caressing its fibers like a string of worry beads.


Finally, the judge asks the defendant if he has anything to say. The victim and his wife both stiffen, as if expecting a blow. The kids are still. Stilson stays in place, at the feet of their father. Several Stilsons are needed today, one for each family member impacted by this horrible crime.


The defendant speaks. “I maintain my innocence, your honor. That man attacked me. I forgive him. He has to live with that for the rest of his life. He gave me no choice. I beg you to sentence me in the lower end of the range. I’m innocent. The man attacked me. He lied. He destroyed my life. I forgive him.”


Court observers are taken aback by the vehemence of the statement. The wife looks down at her hands, her face red with emotion, even fear; she can’t bear to look. The kids fidget beside her. The victim is motionless, staring at the back of the defendant while tightly gripping Stilson’s lead.


The judge pronounces sentence: fifteen years, the maximum allowed. There’s palpable relief among the victim and his family. The prosecutor smiles. Standing to leave the courtroom, the victim bends to stroke Stilson’s head one last time before handing his lead back to the advocate.


Stilson has done his job well.



Rebecca Wallick, was long-time contributing editor for The Bark magazine and retired family law attorney, she lives with two dogs and runs mountain trails at every opportunity.