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Canine Expert Witness to Testify in Negligent Supervision of a Child Case

A judge in Iowa has approved the request of a woman charged with the death of a 4-year-old child who was attacked by a dog while under her care to call a canine behavior expert witness to testify that the defendant could not have known the attack was likely to occur. The judge’s decision granted a pre-trial motion for the criminal case that is scheduled to begin in January, bringing to a close an investigation that began after the deadly attack last April.

Child Killed by Dog While Under Babysitter’s Care

Four-year-old Jordyn Arndt died from injuries suffered during a dog attack that occurred in the home of her babysitter, 24-year-old Jena Marie Wright. Wright was charged with taking care of Jordyn and her 7-year-old brother, Aden, at her home in Prairie City, Iowa on in April of 2013. While at the home, Jordyn was attacked by Jena’s dog, Brutus, an American Staffordshire Terrier. Brutus bit Jordyn in the head and neck area, causing injuries that resulted in the child’s death at a Des Moines hospital the following day.

Jena Wright was arrested and charged with child endangerment causing death as well as neglect or abandonment of a dependent person – two federal crimes that could result in a 35-year prison sentence if she is convicted. Wright is also charged with assault on a peace officer causing bodily injury and interference with official acts for allegedly kicking the arresting officer in the chest during her arrest after the attack.

In order for the prosecution to prove that Wright committed child endangerment and neglect of a dependent person, the state must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew, or should have known, that Brutus had a propensity for aggression that could lead to him attacking Jordyn. As part of her defense, Wright’s attorneys sought the testimony of a canine expert witness to explain to jurors that she might not have known that her animal would become aggressive towards a young child.

Canine Expert Witness Called to Testify About Knowledge of Dog’s Capacity for Violence

Ron Berman, a California based forensics consultant who is an expert in canine temperament, bites, and behavior, has been chosen by Wright’s defense team to take the stand and bolster their claim that the defendant could not have known Brutus would attack Jordyn. Berman was chosen as one of four canine expert witnesses in the United States who has the experience with evaluating dog behavior that qualifies him to offer expert testimony on the subject during a criminal trial. Although the exact nature of Berman’s testimony is unknown, Wright’s attorneys argued his contribution to the trial was relevant because it would support the defense’s argument that the babysitter did not know the dog was violent when she made the decision to leave the children unattended with the animal.

Prosecutors objected to the use of Berman, arguing that his expert testimony was not relevant and would only serve to distract the jury from the important question of whether or not Wright acted negligently by leaving young children alone with a dog. Judge Richard Clogg, however, granted the defense team’s motion because he felt that the canine expert testimony would ensure that Wright received a fair trial that debated all relevant issues, including questions about whether or not she could have known that Brutus had a propensity for violence. As part of his ruling, Judge Clogg agreed to allot $18,000 in public funds to pay for Berman’s expert contribution to the proceedings.

Expert Witnesses and Relevance

Modern standards for admitting expert witness testimony require judges to make determinations about whether or not the proposed contribution would be relevant. Relevant testimony is testimony that informs the court whether the occurrence of a particular fact, or set of facts, is more or less likely, and if an expert is not adding information necessary or helpful to the jury’s determination of whether or not an important fact is true, or is providing testimony that could unfairly prejudice jurors in favor of one side over the other, then a judge could disallow the expert from participating at trial.

If, on the other hand, an expert’s proposed testimony will help jurors determine whether or not the facts presented at trial occurred in such a way that suggests the defendant’s guilt or innocence, the testimony will be relevant. In this case, Mr. Berman’s expert testimony on canine behavior will help jurors determine whether or not the prosecution’s allegation that Wright knew, or should have known, is true. Berman is speaking to a critical alleged fact – that Wright was aware that it was not safe to leave Brutus with two young children – and, as such, his contribution to the trial is relevant.