NY man guilty in sex case; dog helped girl witness

An upstate New York 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 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 Tohom repeatedly raped her. While she spoke, she pet 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.

Tohom's lawyer objected to the undue sympathy he said jurors might give the girl. He said he would appeal the conviction. Tohom faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

While the girl testified for more than an hour, Rose could hardly be seen. When the girl was asked to point out 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.

In considering whether to allow the dog in the courtroom, Dutchess County Judge Stephen Greller rejected the defense argument that Rose's presence might prejudice the jury. Greller said he relied in part on an earlier New York case involving a "comfort item," a teddy bear held by a child witness in an early 1990s sex-crime trial.

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.

Rose's regular job is helping provide therapy in schools for troubled children.