Deputy's use of scent ID targeted in lawsuits

The only dog handler in Texas who uses scent to identify suspects in crimes is named in two lawsuits amid increasing criticism of a practice that defense attorneys say can be hopelessly imprecise.

The Victoria Advocate reported Sunday that the work of Fort Bend County sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett led to 62 days in jail for Calvin Lee Miller before the Yoakum native was cleared in the robbery of one elderly woman and sexual assault of another.

A swab of Miller and the scent from the assault victim's sheets were sent to Pikett, whose three bloodhounds indicated Miller's scent was on the sheets.

The other lawsuit involves a former Victoria County sheriff's captain who became a murder suspect based on scent evidence.

No laws or regulations govern scent lineups, but they're admissible in courts across the nation. Only tighter oversight can keep shoddy scent IDs from becoming key evidence, a growing number of critics say.

"This is junk science. This isn't even science. This is just junk," said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. The group works to free wrongfully convicted inmates and started to investigate Pikett recently.

The premise for scent identification revolves around two things: Dogs have a keen sense of smell — sometimes 10,000 times more sensitive than humans — and everyone has a unique scent.

Supporters say it can be a reliable and important part of law enforcement when lineups are closely regulated and human interaction is limited.

Critics contend scent IDs are easily influenced by human involvement such as the use of a leash during a lineup; the presence of many scents on evidence or in scent lineups; and the fact that humans must speak for dogs in court.

Even supporters say great care must be taken if scent lineups are to be considered reliable.

"As a dog handler, you'd better be acting as a scientist," said Steve Nicely, a police dog handler who has since served as a defense witness. "Otherwise, you're acting on myth and folklore."

Pikett's scent work led to a search warrant for the house of former Victoria County sheriff's Capt. Michael Buchanek during the 2006 investigation of the high-profile murder of Child Protective Services worker Sally Blackwell in Victoria.

The deputy's dogs walked from a spot where Blackwell's body was found to her home about five miles away, then to Buchanek's home nearby. Through a scent lineup, authorities obtained a search warrant. Another man eventually pleaded guilty in the case.

Rex Easley, an attorney for Buchanek and Miller, criticized Pikett's use of a leash and said the evidence was contaminated with countless other scents. An expert hired by Easley blasted Pikett's work.

The lineup was "the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed," said Bob Coote, who worked with police dogs in the United Kingdom. "If it was not for the fact that this is a serious matter, I could have been watching a comedy."

Pikett's attorney, Randy Morse, said his supervisors haven't set guidelines for his work because he's the only one who understands it. Morse said he had advised his client not to comment.

Some prosecutors and investigators support scent identification because it can offer leads where there were none.

San Jacinto County District Attorney Bill Burnett used Pikett as an expert witness to prosecute three co-defendants in a murder case. One was convicted of murder, another of capital murder and the third was acquitted.

"I felt like this evidence was certainly credible," Burnett said.

The Scientific Working Group for Dog and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines is drafting a list for scent lineups. The group will likely suggest an international board to oversee certifying agencies, said Kenneth Furton, chairman of the federally funded group. Even with certification, Furton said, no criminal case should be built on scent lineups alone.

The 43-year-old Miller, who was initially targeted because police knew him as a habitual nonviolent offender, said he moved away from Yoakum after his arrest. Easley said the former high school football player still doesn't understand how he ended up in jail.

"His question was, 'If I didn't do it, how could those dogs say I did it?'" Easley said. "And I told him dogs can't talk."

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