African Grey parrot witnesses violent crime

The parrot witnessed it all. Glenna and her husband Martin were having a real barney in their Michigan home. Screaming and shouting, things thrown, the works. Finally, gunshots.

When police arrived, they found Martin dead in a pool of blood, shot five times. Glenna lay wounded. Police thought the couple were the victims of a violent break-in.

Parrot witness re-enacts murder scene and reveals victim's last words

Martin's ex-wife Christina took in the couple's pet African Grey parrot, Bud. She was staggered the next day to hear Bud squawk the entire deadly crime. She taped the squawks and police listened as the parrot witness revealed whodunit.

Bud squawked clearly in two different voices, one male and one female, mimicked the sounds of things smashing, and finally a man's voice screaming: "Don't f...g shoot!"

Michigan police told Glenna they had a witness they were prepared to have testify in court, and played her the tape of Bud the parrot squawking Martin's last words.

Glenna immediately confessed, and was convicted of murder. The 2017 case is possibly the closest ever to an animal acting as a witness in court. (See YouTube, Parrot Was Key 'Witness' in Murder Trial as Woman Is Convicted of Killing Husband.)

Dogs summoned as witnesses in murder trials in France

In 2008 a French court had a dog called Scooby in the witness box during a preliminary hearing to see if it would bark at a suspect in a murder case. The dog barked furiously, but wasn't used in the trial. (See Scooby the dog makes legal history after appearing in court as a witness in a murder case.)

In 2014 another French judge, perhaps seeking his own burst of publicity, had a Labrador called Tango come into the witness stand to see if he could testify against the suspected murderer of his master.

The judge ordered the suspect to threaten the dog with a bat, with the idea being that Tango's reactions could be used to identify or rule out the suspect.

In a nod to scientific methodology, a second dog named Norman, of the same age and breed as Tango, was brought in to serve as the "control group".

However, neither Norman nor Tango demonstrated any interest in the suspect brandishing the bat, or in any other aspect of the court proceedings. (See French court summons dogs as witnesses in a murder trial.)

Animal or bird cannot be a witness in an Australian court

African Grey parrots have an uncanny ability to remember and recite entire scenes, particularly if they witness traumatic events. Certainly, Bud's squawk helped police get a confession out of Glenna.

But I've never heard of a parrot or any animal being seriously used in any court in the world as a witness to a crime.

It would certainly be impossible in Australia. How could you cross examine them? Under the Commonwealth Evidence Act 1995, witnesses have to take an oath, be competent to give evidence, understand questions and understand the obligation to give truthful evidence.

Even if a dog barks or growls at a suspect, how could you be certain it is doing so because that person is the perpetrator? The dog might just not like them.

Recognition of animals as sentient beings deserving compassion

Under existing law, animals under the control of humans are property.

In 2019, the ACT became the first jurisdiction in Australia to amend its animal welfare laws to recognise that animals are "sentient beings", noting that animals can subjectively feel and perceive the world around them. (See Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Act 2019.)

The ACT law says animals have "intrinsic value and deserve to be treated with compassion" and people have a duty to "care for the physical and mental welfare of animals".

As any dog owner knows, myself included, that is declaring the bleeding obvious.

However, it doesn't mean animals are legally the same as humans, nor does it mean animals can testify in court. But it is a step towards recognising in law that animals have emotions, and aren't simply inanimate property.

Anneka Frayne
Criminal law
Stacks Law Firm

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