'Scent lineups' stink to critics
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
Two federal lawsuits are casting a harsh spotlight on an investigative tool long beloved by American law enforcement: a bloodhound's nose.
Lawsuits filed in Victoria, Texas, allege that Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett and his team of hounds — James Bond, Quincy and Clue — failed controversial sniff tests known as "scent lineups."
Much like in traditional lineups, the dogs link human scents left at crime scenes to samples from suspects.
In each case, the suits allege, Pikett's dogs called attention to the wrong person. Both former suspects have been cleared.
The legal challenges are "a first for us," says Randall Morse, an assistant county attorney who is representing Pikett. He says the hounds have worked about 2,000 cases across the country, including the search for Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.
"He really never had a problem," Morse says.
Defense lawyers say the technique smacks of forensic voodoo and casts further suspicion on the broader use of scent dog evidence.
"It's a fraud on so many levels," says Jeffrey Weiner, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Since 2004, two men in Florida and one in California have been freed after DNA evidence exonerated them. They had been convicted, in part, on the use of scent evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate the wrongly convicted. Pikett's dogs weren't involved in those cases.
National Police Bloodhound Association spokesman Dennis Guzlas says the association urges that scent lineups be used with caution.
In the most recent Pikett case, defense attorney Rex Easley says Calvin Miller, 42, was cleared last month after a three-month jail stint as a suspect in robbery and sexual assault cases. He had been singled out by Pikett's dogs in a scent lineup in Yoakum, Texas.
In a lawsuit against Pikett, Fort Bend County, the county sheriff, the city of Yoakum and a police official, Easley alleges the scent lineup was "rigged."
Easley says Miller was released after both victims were unable to identify him in a traditional lineup, and DNA evidence excluded him as a suspect.
"It's junk science," says Easley, who also is representing Michael Buchanek in the second suit. He was a suspect in a 2006 murder in Victoria, Texas.
Morse, Pikett's lawyer, says his client had no reason to implicate either man.
Ken Sparks, county attorney in Colorado County, Texas, an enthusiastic supporter of Pikett's work, says he understands some of the skepticism.
"Everybody who encounters it the first time says, 'Yeah, right,' " Sparks says. "That's what I said before I first saw it work."
Pikett says the lawsuits are just attempts to win large awards. "It's all about money," he says.
How a scent lineup works:
• Participants of same race and sex stand together.
• Each walks 150 feet at a different angle to leave 25 feet between them.
• At starting point, dog smells sample from crime scene.
• Dog follows scent trail to one person in lineup. If scent does not match, dog will not trail.
USA TODAY research