Therapy for a high-stakes trial: Meet the dogs who call the Burke trial courtroom home

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

The high-stakes federal corruption trial of former Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke is sure to be full of tension, suspense and high drama.

So it may be fitting that his trial is set to begin Monday in U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall’s courtroom, part-time home to a pair of therapy dogs named Birdie and Junebug who help people cope with the stress of visiting federal court.

“They calm everyone down,” Kendall recently told lawyers in Burke’s case.

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Birdie and Junebug are Bernese mountain dogs who have been fixtures at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for years. It’s not unusual to see them trailing Kendall through the hallways or up onto her courtroom bench, where they quickly disappear behind the dais.

The only public sign of their presence at that point may be the soft, subtle sound of panting.

But during breaks in proceedings, Birdie and Junebug are often available to comfort lawyers, witnesses, jurors and even defendants like Burke. They also recently greeted people in the lobby of the downtown courthouse, drawing all sorts of attention as visitors made their way inside. 

Bernese mountain dog Junebug gets her head scratched by a man wearing a backpack in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Therapy dog Junebug gets her head scratched as she greets people in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The dogs are trained to sit and face away, allowing people to pet and run their hands through their thick fur. Birdie and Junebug also spend time at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan, where Kendall’s husband is the president.

Kendall is a North Shore native and former federal prosecutor, nominated to the bench in 2005 by then-President George W. Bush.

Birdie and Junebug will likely make appearances during Burke’s trial, so Kendall has introduced the dogs to the many defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case. One day, when only Birdie was present, the lawyers set aside their arguments during a status hearing to pet and coo over the 4-year-old pup.

Kendall told them Junebug, who is 7 ½, was at the vet that day.

“Your jury will have the benefit of calm court dogs,” Kendall told them. “And the lawyers usually need them, too.”

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall pets her Bernese mountain dogs Birdie and Junebug, with a federal seal visible in the background, in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall pets her therapy dogs Birdie and Junebug in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Birdie and Junebug may be hidden when they’re resting beside Kendall, but the judge said they’ve offered great comfort behind the scenes to witnesses who may be nervous about testifying, particularly victims.

It’s not unheard of for therapy dogs to help witnesses in court. In September, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought permission from U.S. District Judge John Blakey to have therapy dogs in a witness room to comfort an underage victim during a sexual exploitation trial.

They cited a ruling from a federal court in San Diego, which upheld the use of a therapy dog in a separate sex-crimes case. That dog sat at the feet of the victim, behind the stand, while she testified, records show.

The prosecutors in Chicago wrote that “confronting the man who sexually exploited her and telling a courtroom full of strangers about the worst parts of her life will be an extremely stressful event for the minor. As such, the minor could use the emotional and physiological benefits that interactions with an animal-assisted therapy team could provide.”

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Bernese mountain dogs Birdie and Junebug stand and sit as they look to the same point while in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Therapy dogs Birdie and Junebug wait in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Oct. 11.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Chicago prosecutors did not use either of Kendall’s dogs in that case. And they did not ask the dogs be allowed to join the minor for her testimony. Likewise, Kendall told lawyers in the Burke case she is wary of having therapy dogs join witnesses on the stand because of the message that could send to a jury.

That doesn’t mean jurors don’t get to see Birdie and Junebug. Rather, Kendall said they’ve been known to bring their own treats for the pups.

When a court security officer did the same thing, Kendall said it prompted the dogs to start approaching anyone wearing the officers’ uniform blue suit.

She said they are good timekeepers, too. Though the judge tends to take a break every 90 minutes during a trial, she told the lawyers she’ll hear whining behind her if she goes longer.

“She knows that I’m supposed to break,” Kendall said while introducing Birdie.

Birdie and Junebug are so well known at the courthouse that a juror in a separate corruption trial this year, overseen by a different judge, said she’d learned of “a judge that brings her dogs in.” That juror, Amanda Schnitker Sayers, served on the jury earlier this year that convicted four people of conspiring to bribe then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Schnitker Sayers is a veterinarian. And she said there are “so many studies” that show being around pets can lower one’s blood pressure and heart rate.

“I think having companion animals around is good for everyone’s health,” she said.

Bernese mountain dog Birdie watches as Junebug gets petted while their owner, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, chats with the woman, who wears a blue sweater and a black backpack, in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Therapy dog Birdie watches as Junebug gets petted while their owner, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall, chats with the woman.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bernese mountain dogs Birdie and Junebug greet people individually, including a man with a tan pullover and a man in a dress shirt, in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse lobby Oct. 11.

Therapy dogs Birdie and Junebug greet people individually in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse lobby Oct. 11.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Headshot of Bernese mountain dog Junebug in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Therapy dog Junebug awaits pettings at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bernese mountain dog Junebug gets her head scratched and Birdie is partly visible as they greet people in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Therapy dog Junebug gets her head scratched at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse lobby.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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