Dog handler sued over 2 cases of scent misidentification

VICTORIA, Texas – 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 suits against Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett were filed by Calvin Lee Miller, who spent 62 days in jail for robbery and sexual assault before being cleared, and a former Victoria County Sheriff's captain who became a murder suspect before another man pleaded guilty in the case.

Pikett's work figured in both cases, the Victoria Advocate reported Sunday. For example: In the case involving Miller, a swab from 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.

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 recently started to investigate Pikett.

Pikett's attorney, Randy Morse, said he has advised his client not to comment.

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."

Morse said Pikett's supervisors haven't set guidelines for his work because he's the only one who understands it.

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 and another of capital murder. 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 probably will 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.

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