Scent lineup critic says report will show practice's weakness

Although his techniques have been questioned and criticized, a Fort Bend County deputy and his hounds still perform scent lineups.

A group that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted hopes that will change after their investigation of Keith Pikett is released Monday.

Pikett is the only person in Texas who practices the controversial procedure for gathering evidence. He is used by law enforcement agencies across the state.

"He did a lineup yesterday, he did one today," said Randy Morse, the assistant Fort Bend County attorney who represents Pikett.

Pikett's scent lineups are, in theory, similar to photo lineups. Investigators swab evidence in hopes of catching the scent of the criminal. That scent is lined up with five decoy scents. The hounds smell a gauze pad wiped on a suspect, then sniff down the line in search of a match.

On Monday, the Innocence Project of Texas will release a report that exposes Pikett's work as junk science and documents cases in which suspects have been wrongly accused based on the dog handler's work, said the group's chief council, Jeff Blackburn. Blackburn also authored the study.

"This is an evil joke," Blackburn said of the scent lineups.

But Morse said the Innocence Project vilified Pikett long before considering all the evidence.

"It's like they made up their mind before they did the investigation," Morse said.

Two civil cases pending in Victoria's federal court highlighted flaws in Pikett's techniques. One plaintiff, Calvin Lee Miller of Yoakum, was held in jail for two months on suspicion of robbery and aggravated sexual assault based on a scent lineup. DNA evidence and victims' failure to identify Miller cleared him of the crimes.

The report's Monday release comes not long after another study revealed shoddy arson investigation techniques may have led an innocent man to be executed in Texas.

"The appellate courts in this state have turned Texas into a national embarrassment," Blackburn said.

Besides targeting flaws in Pikett's work, the Innocence Project has outlined a plan legislators and the governor's office can use to keep weak evidence out of courtrooms.

"We've given up on the courts," Blackburn said.

But if investigators still rely on Pikett's work, what effect would a halt have?

In June, vandals sacked Russell Rabius' East Bernard rice farm and that of a neighbor's. A total of four tractors, a truck, a barn and rice crops were destroyed.

Rabius, 45, was surprised when Wharton County Sheriff's Office deputies did not look for fingerprints in the enclosed cabs of the tractors or truck. Instead, they began to wipe the surfaces with a gauze pad, he said.

Investigators told Rabius they were collecting scent evidence. For weeks, Rabius and his family prodded deputies, asking what a scent lineup was and when it would be performed.

He was told there were hundreds of cases before his awaiting scent lineups. Because Rabius had never heard of scent lineups before, he began to research their accuracy.

He was not pleased with what he found.

"It's a double-edged sword," Rabius said. "On one hand, you have these people who have been wrongly accused. Then, you have people like me who are relying on this for some sort of answer."

Rabius' case is ongoing, so Lt. Daniel Marek said he couldn't say what type of evidence had been collected and whether it had been processed.

Media criticism of Pikett angers Marek.

"I hate it when cases are tried in the media, not in the courtroom," he said.

Marek knows Pikett, he said. The deputy's scent lineups have helped Wharton County investigations in the past. Marek would ask for Pikett's help in the future, he said.

For his part, Morse knows of no plans to stall Pikett's work. That order would come from Pikett's supervisor, Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright, Morse said. Wright could not be reached for comment.

If other agencies are concerned about Pikett's work, they could stop requesting his services, Morse said.

But Blackburn remains determined that his report will put Pikett out of business.

"This has the same scientific value as bringing a unicorn or a leprechaun to a crime scene," Blackburn said. "I don't think it should be admissible in court."

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