Scent Lineups

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

A scent lineup starts with the collection of scent from a crime scene. Scent samples are also collected from potential suspects. A dog is presented with the crime scene scent and then presented with the scents from the suspects. The dog then communicates the matching scent to its handler. The dog handler then testifies at trial and his testimony has been presented as “scientific identification” in Texas courts.

One such handler is Deputy Keith Pikett of Fort Bend County, Texas. Pickett and his bloodhounds have worked about 2000 cases all around the country, and the Texas Attorney General’s office has recommended his work.

Police detectives would call in Pikett, tell him who they thought was the real suspect, and lo and behold, the scent lineup confirmed the detective’s suspicions. Prosecutors loved him, Pikett would use his dogs to “confirm” what they wanted to know.

According to a special report by the Innocence Project of Texas, Pikett testified that “he had a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree from Syracuse University and a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Houston.” However, Pikett never received any degrees from either institution. He repeated the lie about having a master’s degree in chemistry in the case State v. Winston. In that case the Court of Appeals of Texas (14th District) cemented Pikett’s reputation as an expert in scent lineups.

The 2004 murder of Murray Burr rocked the small town of Coldspring, Texas. The local sheriff suspected the Winfrey family and Pikett was called in. Based on scent lineups, Megan Winfrey, then 16 years old, her brother Richard Winfrey Jr., and their father Richard Winfrey Sr. were arrested. Megan and Richard Sr., represented by state-appointed lawyers, were convicted on the basis of a scent lineup done three years after the crime.

At the San Jacinto County trial of Richard Jr., Dallas defense attorney Shirley Baccus-Lobel put on a masterful defense that devastated Pikett’s testimony and obtained a “not guilty” verdict, returned within thirteen minutes.

Baccus-Lobel then turned her attention to the appeal of the father’s case whose conviction had already be upheld by one appellate court. In a unanimous ruling, The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas reversed the court of appeals and entered a judgement of acquittal for the father. The Court of Criminal Appeals found that scent lineups, standing alone, “is insufficient to establish a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Megan, now 23, is currently serving the third year of a life sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review her case.

Pikett, now retired, is facing numerous lawsuits and requests for his services have dried up. Ronald Curtis, who spent months in jail on scent lineup evidence, only to have the charges dropped, said “this man is a fraud.” Jeff Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said “Pikett is not the problem. The problem is the DAs and police agencies who have used him.”

H/T: The Agitator, NY Times, Michael Hall, Houston ChronicleThe Southeast Texas Record, USA Today, Austin American-Statesman.

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20 thoughts on “Scent Lineups”

  1. Dio,

    And a commission set up by the legislature to investigate that issue was set to release a report and damn if the day before it is set to be released….the governor recalled the appointments….and could not or did not appoint new folks…I am uncertain of the status of the report….

  2. OS,

    You are correct…and, if I recall Coldspring, Texas correctly….back in the day if you had a certain rock and roll station sticker on your vehicle…the odds were 99 to 1 you’d be stopped, arrested and charged with possession of drugs…usually in that order…even if you were clean….

  3. In Texas they recently executed a poor guy who was convicted on setting his house on fire, killing thus his 2 kids, based on ‘SCIENTIFIC’ bizarre conclusions drown by a local firefighter.

    One can not avoid pointing a finger at the Public Defender who failed in defending the poor guy.

    But than, we all witnessed recently the intellectual prowess of Tx’s Governor and his strong grasp of reality.

  4. Did I fail to mention that I am certified by the American Crystal Association as a Master Crystologist?

    I have a Master of Crystal Science from Hardvard University and a PhD in Crystology from MIT (Meniscus Institute of Tremendous Stuff).

    Call for rates – have crystals, will travel.

  5. The courts in Texas are a bad joke. The only way you can get “justice” is to have a damn good lawyer and/or a lot of money. Jeff was a roommate of mine in college and I am glad he is doing such good work. He is one of the few lawyers that I know who is honest and a decent person.

  6. Since Pikett lied about his qualifications and education and used those lies to establish his credibility as an expert witness, shouldn’t he be facing some sort of sanction or prosecution for perjury?

    Yes, it is a bad barrel. Defendants without adequate resources to fund a full and adequate defense get covered in the rot every day. The full weight and resources of the state against a defendant with little. Add the de facto collusion of police, prosecutors and judges and its a wonder any poor or of otherwise limited means defendant is ever found not guilty in major criminal proceedings, especially proceedings that are not closely followed.

    Pikett should face charges. No telling how many innocent people have spent years behind bars thanks to his testimony.

  7. Thank you, Nal … this was an excellent read.

    Thank God for the Innocence Project of Texas

  8. BTW, I have a beautiful (and expensive) bird dog with extensive training (more expense), He has a wonderful nose and does a great job. But I sure wish like hell he would quit pointing up rattlers. Fortunately, I’ve learned what’s up when he gives me the “You’re stupid” glance at the flush command.

  9. Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said “Pikett is not the problem. The problem is the DAs and police agencies who have used him.”

    True that! Remember, this happened in Texas, where a rouge, all-white regional narcotics task force used trump-up charges to arrest 17% of Tulia’s population of 246 blacks in one night for which the County Sheriff received the Texas Department of Public Safety’s 1999 Outstanding
    Lawman of the Year. All convicted were pardoned.

    It’s also the home of Dallas County, where since 2001 more wrongly convicted people have been freed through DNA testing than anywhere else in the nation.

    And of course, who can forget Governor Goodhair’s coverup of a wrongful execution based on faulty evidence of arson by a serial faux expert.

    Criminal justice in Texas is to justice as military music is to music.

  10. Does the dog react like a drug sniffing dog and go sit down by a person or persons in question?

  11. The thing nobody has mentioned is the potencial for corruption represented by this cop and his dog. How do we know that the dog is not trained to alert to a non-verbal command from his handler rather than to a scent; any scent?

    I don’t care if the cop is a Doctor of Chemistry; he isn’t the one doing the sniffing. And trust the word of a cop as to the meaning of the dog’s reactions. I’m with Frankly and I offer my services as the dog. I can’t smell anything which should make me perfect for the “Job” this cop is trying to do.

    I wonder if any of the cases he fabricated evidence for were Death penalty cases. I say fabricated evidence because a conspiracy exists here. A conspiracy between the cop, the court, and the prosecuter to use evidence that can not be validated and which was obtained after the cop was told who they wanted to convict and wanted the dog to alert on. yes sir.

    Then people seem confused when I express a lack of confidence in our “Justice” system.

    This cop has no way of knowing or at least proving the validity of the dogs reactions. therefore he is presenting as true evidence that which he has made up out of his head And that is fabricating evidence.

  12. Of special interest of late for the Supremes has been the scope of the confrontation clause. So, how does one cross examine the dog?

  13. Martin was correct that it is a bad barrell, not just a few bad apples.
    I had never heard of convicting someone solely on the evidence from a dog’s nose through its handler. Is this just a Texas issue or do other states allow this?
    Why wasn’t Megan’s appeal included in the Father’s appeal and do these DA’s still have their licenses? If so, why?!

  14. What OS said. Every defendant convicted on Pikett’s scent evidence alone have a new get out of jail card — incompetent counsel. Furthermore, the DA’s committed fraud on the Courts by presenting Pikett’s CV as true.

  15. I was really saddened on several levels when Peter Nordberg passed away in 2010. First of all, for the pain his family is suffering from his loss, but also because he maintained the site “Daubert on the Web,” which had a wealth of information about experts and expert testimony. Peter kept up with all the progeny of Daubert.

    His widow has asked for help in keeping the site going.

  16. Nal,

    This is a good catch on so may levels, that calls into question many aspects of the workings of Criminal Law.

    1. The use of unproved “scientific” evidence as scientific proof.
    2. The lack of investigation into the “credentials” of “expert” witnesses.
    3. Prior discussion with the “expert” as to who the police feel is the “perp”.
    4. The willingness of experts to act as mercenary “hired guns”
    5..What juries, given the patina of “authorities” judgment, will decide.
    6. What is “solid” evidence that can overcome reasonable doubt.
    7. The hit and miss rulings of appellate courts, reluctant to intervene.
    8. The lack of resources for defense given to Legal Aid Lawyers and the
    problems inherent in State-Appointed Lawyers

    That’s just what I thought of off the top of my head. The idea that “solid evidence” can be given by a dog, as based on the interpretation of its’
    handler has always seemed to me to be specious. No doubt that cadaver dogs can be used in tracking possible locations of bodies. However, as to smelling the guilty, until we can fully understand and communicate with dogs that to me is a non-starter.

    As to the rest of the issues I raised, they only highlight the imperfections of our judicial system which gives the prosecution overwhelming advantage in most cases.

  17. This is an example of why an attorney, no matter whether a criminal or civil case, should ever take an expert’s CV at face value. If the expert claims to be “Board Certified,” check out that board directly. If a claim of a degree is made, check with the University(s). One of the more egregious board certification organizations was created and run out of Springfield, Missouri by a guy who claims to have more diplomas himself than ten out of ten Nobel Laureates. His organization will give out “Diplomate” certification in forensic sciences.

    One psychologist in Canada got his cat, “Dr. Zoe D. Katze,” made a Diplomate.

    Here is a discussion forum about the organization and its founder. These people are out there in droves, credit card in hand, getting all kinds of certifications and going to court with them.

    There are legitimate professional organizations that have Board Certification at the national and international level. Check out not only the erstwhile expert’s claims, but check out the boards and universities as well.

    There is a local physician on the staff of a local hospital. He listed himself as an alumnus of MIT on his hospital bio page. A quick check by a friend of mine who is connected to MIT showed this physician had never even taken one course at MIT. He has since pulled that claim down from his bio page, but the fact he did make the claim in the first place brings his credibility into question if he ever goes to court.

  18. So I stand ready to offer my professional services as a crystal reader. For a reasonable fee, plus travel & expenses, I will wave different crystals over the evidence and interpret the results to identify the perp.

    I’m sure you will be pleased with the results and nothing could go wrong.

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