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SAN BENITO — The young man in the orange jumpsuit and the handcuffs waited nervously to learn his fate.
Across the courtroom, Peanut loudly shook her coat, and the sound of it and the movement of the Schnauzer mix untied the tightness and the anxiousness of the moment.
The 17-year-old juvenile in the 484th District Court of Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza was at a sharp and jagged crossroads of his life Wednesday. He could spend the rest of his life in prison for first-degree felony aggravated robbery, or he could follow Kowalski-Garza and her new staff member, Peanut, out of that dark place into a much finer place.
Wednesday was Peanut’s introduction to the courtroom, where she would soon join Kowalski-Garza full time to create a calming effect for the youthful offenders appearing before. She’ll spend a couple more weeks with the Brownsville Animal Defense before taking permanent residence with the 484th as a comfort or “therapy dog.”
Kowalski-Garza had considered bringing such an animal for quite some time.
“You can imagine just how stressful it might be for any person, adult or child, to appear in front of a judge after being accused of a crime,” Kowalski-Garza said earlier Wednesday before hearing this juvenile case and several others.
The 484th District Court was created this year to deal primarily with juvenile cases.
“I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer for 34 years and I have seen adults shaking in fear when they are in front of a judge, and the same with these children,” she said. “They come to this court in handcuffs. They come to this court in jumpsuits. You can imagine how stressful and how much fear they have. I see it in their eyes.”
Peanut had come to the court by way of Brownsville Animal Defense, who’d received a request from Texas State Sen. Morgan LaMantia to provide a comfort dog to the court. She’d been rescued from the streets last year as a 3- or 4-month-old puppy, said Tony Lopez, president of BAD.
“We picked Peanut out of a couple of dogs because of her demeanor, her temperament,” Lopez said.
As Kowalski-Garza heard the young man’s case and spoke to the young man about his future, and as she conversed with Assistant District Attorney Rene Garza and with the boy’s mother, Peanut sat in front of Benavidez, dog trainer and educator for Brownsville Animal Defense.
“Peanut is a fast learner,” Benavidez said before court. “She picked everything up.”
In the more informal setting before the formal proceedings began, Peanut moved with a playful vitality, which won the hearts of everyone who met her.
“Peanut is everybody’s friend,” Benavidez said. “She’s not a nervous animal at all.”
Peanut’s calm was the perfect antidote to the fear of the young man in the orange jumpsuit and the handcuffs.
She sat with confidence and looked with demure and inquisitive eyes over her fuzzy Schnauzer nose at the boy in the handcuffs, offering the kind of support only a dog can give. She lay down, stood up, walked around, her animated vitality soothing the tension of a serious situation.
Because now Kowalski-Garza spoke to the prosecutor about the young man’s predicament. He had been accused of a serious crime that he didn’t appear to be taking seriously. The court and the prosecutor had tried to keep him out of the adult prison system with an offer to complete a program that would get the charges dismissed through deferred adjudication.
They had sent him to a boot camp, and he’d been removed from that boot camp for talking so much he was disrupting classes. Prosecutor Garza himself said several times during proceedings the problem was based in the defendant’s immaturity and not fully understanding the gravity of his situation.
So now, with Peanut looking on, Kowalski-Garza asked the boy a pointed question.
“Can you keep your mouth shut?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered through his face mask.
Peanut watched with her adoring eyes as if pleading with him to answer affirmatively and sincerely.
“Will you keep your mouth shut?” the judge asked again.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said again at which time Kowalski-Garza ruled that he be given one last chance and be returned to boot camp for 10 days. She emphasized to him that he could not mess up even one time, that this was his last chance to regain his future.
Meanwhile, Peanut looked on, a symbol of hope in the frightening world of futures in crisis.