Dog’s nose fallible as a crime lab

DNA has shown conclusively that people are unreliable.
Eyewitness identification is often misidentification.
Hair matches? Too often they match too many heads.
Even fingerprints are not for sure, as the FBI learned when it falsely accused a Portland lawyer of being involved in a Madrid terrorist bombing that killed 191 and injured 2,000. The FBI issued a rare apology for jailing the man for two weeks.
Now two federal lawsuits involving a Fort Bend County deputy and his dogs say that bloodhounds may be man’s best friends, but they are not infallible detectives.
Back in February, Calvin Miller, a self-employed mechanic and laborer, was called into the Yoakum Police Department for questioning. He took his attorney, Bill Caraway, with him.
According to a lawsuit on Miller’s behalf, a police officer grabbed Miller’s arm, wiped it “forcibly” with a gauze pad, and said, “That’s all I need. Y’all can go now.”
The police version is less aggressive, but it is undisputed that the purpose of the encounter was to obtain skin cells that contained Miller’s scent so that one of Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett’s trusty bloodhounds could check his scent against scents found on evidence connected with two crimes.
Pikett has received a fair amount of publicity for his hounds’ successes, going back to their involvement in the Olympic bomber case in Atlanta.
According to the suit, police told Caraway that “local dope dealers” said Miller had been buying a lot of cocaine and a local woman, 66, had reported being robbed by a tall, soft-spoken black man, a description that fits Miller and quite a few other black males.
A few weeks later, a 79-year-old Yoakum woman was raped, also describing her assailant as a tall, soft-spoken black man.
Miller was jailed March 4, based partly on a “scent lineup” conducted by Pikett in which he had his bloodhound compare Miller’s scent to scents found on the rape victim’s bedcover and items recovered from the robbery.
A DNA test excluded Miller as the rapist in early April, but he wasn’t released for more than a month, four days after both victims failed to identify him in a lineup.
An earlier case
The same attorney who filed a lawsuit on Miller’s behalf earlier this year, Rex Easley Jr., sued Pikett and others in connection with another false identification based on bloodhound work.
In that case, a former sheriff’s captain was publicly identified as a suspect in the murder of a 53-year-old Victoria woman he had dated.
Pikett’s dog was said to have followed a scent from her body dumped in the country, to her house and on to the former captain’s house.
He wasn’t arrested “but his name was all over the TV,” Easley said.
In this case, another man confessed to the murder.
Blasting ‘voodoo science’
Easley said the problem wasn’t with the dogs, but with the “science” performed by their handlers.
Calling it “voodoo science,” he said he suspects that Pikett did something that influenced his dog to ID the scent of the man whom police suspected.
Easley said if he can get the cases to trial he will present several experts to show that the methodology used in these cases is “junk science.”
I was unable to reach Pikett, but Fort Bend Assistant County Attorney Randall Morse, who represents him, said he hasn’t known Pikett and his dogs to blow a case in the past 15 years, despite working on 2,000 cases.
Morse said he doesn’t like to speculate, but human error can lead to bad results. For example, he said, it is possible that the police detective who obtained the gauze sample from Miller also handled some of the robbery items on which the dog found a match.
So it may be that dogs are great detectives after all. The problem is their communication skills are limited and their excitements subject to misinterpretation.
“Defense lawyers complain that you can’t cross-examine a dog,” said Morse.
So the problem may not be what the dog is telling us, but what we are hearing.
To err, it seems, truly is human.

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