Wade defense argues reliability of scent evidence

Monday, December 8, 2008

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Joshua Wade is in what may be a life-or-death fight: Accused in the torture and killing of his neighbor, Mindy Schloss, he could face the death penalty under a federal carjacking statute.

The trial is scheduled for May, but before the case gets that far Wade's defense is trying to make sure jurors never hear a lot of the evidence investigators collected using dogs tracking scent.

Both sides agree that dogs have keen senses of smell, that humans have unique scents, and that specialized vacuums can suck up that scent and capture it.

But the defense has big problems with the reliability of methods used in this case.

Specialized FBI dog teams were used to connect Wade to the crimes. Trails led from ATMs where Schloss's bank cards were used to both of their homes.

Those hits were used to obtain search warrants, which yielded important pieces of evidence.

Rex Stockholm, a supervisor from the FBI's Human Scent Evidence Team in Quantico, Va., testified Monday about how the dogs work and the methods used, including something called a Scent Transfer Unit.

It's known as the STU-100, a little vacuum that sucks scent from objects into a gauze pad.

Those scents are then used to perform a variety of investigative techniques -- like following scent trails and identifying scents in a lineup. It allows investigators to connect crime scenes to locations and people.

Stockholm spoke about the scent "highways" people leave behind in their travels and the survivability of human scents over time.

While prosecutors are expected to argue the science is solid, the defense believes the FBI makes exaggerated and unproven claims about scent durability and the dogs' abilities to differentiate in the event of mixed samples -- enough so that if used, it will unfairly prejudice a jury using unreliable evidence.

Wade's defense team is also concerned with the possible introduction of Wade's criminal history.

In 2000, Wade was tried and acquitted of killing Della Brown, but he was convicted of disturbing the body. The defense is worried there will be a suggestion Wade killed Brown if the prosecution is allowed to discuss that case.

If that happens, the defense says they would be obligated to mount two murder defenses -- working to prove he's innocent of both women's murders -- complicating the case, and making it costlier and more time intensive.

They're arguing they need to know now to adequately prepare. The defense should also hear in early January whether or not the federal government will seek the death penalty.

Contact Jill Burke at jburke@ktuu.com

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