Relatedly, the New York Times has coverage this morning of Deputy Pikett's scent lineups and the Innocence Project of Texas report (pdf) criticizing the practice. Times reporter John Schwarz has a blog post with additional information, including more detail about the FBI's past and present use of the practice:
Three men who spent months in jail after dogs linked their scents to evidence from crimes they did not commit are filing a lawsuit claiming Texas authorities falsely arrested and imprisoned them, their attorney said Tuesday.
The lawsuit, which will be filed in federal court in Houston on Wednesday, asks for compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional pain and suffering the men say they suffered in jail.
Named in the lawsuit are: five homicide investigators in the Houston Police Department; Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright; and Deputy Keith Pikett, whose dogs were used in the investigations. The City of Houston and its police department are also listed as defendants.
This is at least the third lawsuit targeting Pikett, who has spent about 20 years training dogs named Clue, James Bond and Columbo to sniff out possible criminals in more than 2,000 scent identification lineups. Pikett says his dogs determine if a suspect's scent matches smells from crime scene evidence.
The use of scent lineups in the Hatfill/anthrax case is arguably the highest profile example in America of prosecuting based on accusations by dogs, but the Texas lawsuits show it's not an isolated incident.
While some states have used dogs for scent lineups, the Federal Bureau of Investigation says it shuns the practice, and uses dogs to follow a trail to a suspect or a location associated with him, and not to identify one person out of several. Thomas Lintner, the chief of the F.B.I. Laboratory’s evidence response team unit said that the bureau has been using scent dogs to link people to crimes for four years as an “emerging technology” and works under carefully controlled conditions using “scent transfer units” that vacuum air across pads with minimal contamination. Even then, the F.B.I. restricts the uses of the evidence produced by dogs.
“It’s a lead generation activity,” he said. “It’s not something we’re going to take to court and say, ‘we need to indict this guy.’ ”A story written in 2002 by Scott Shane, now a New York Times reporter, when he worked at the Baltimore Sun, suggests, however, that F.B.I.’s approach to using dogs to gather evidence has not always been so scrupulous. That article (which is archived, and requires a payment to see in full), suggested that bloodhound handlers from Southern California brought in to assist in the search for the source of deadly anthrax in letters mailed in 2001 may have contributed to the the F.B.I.’s flawed decision to focus on Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, who was later cleared of suspicion in the case. One news report called bloodhounds the F.B.I.’s “secret weapon” linking Dr. Hatfill to the letters.
We also get a little update on the current status of Deputy Pikett's scent lineup work:
Jeff Blackburn, the author of the Innocence Project report, said of Mr. Pikett, “It’s a marvel to me that they’re still using him anywhere.”
Randall Morse, an assistant Fort Bend County attorney who is representing Mr. Pikett, said that that Mr. Pikett’s lineup work has dropped off considerably since the lawsuits began. While unwilling to comment extensively on cases in litigation, Mr. Morse said that Mr. Pikett and his dogs provide valuable evidence for police to act on, nothing more. He cited cases in which the dogs have not given police the answer they hoped for in linking a suspect to a crime, and were later proved right when another suspect was convicted.
But, he acknowledged, the process itself can seem mysterious, even to him. “The first time I saw it, I couldn’t understand what the dogs were doing,” but Mr. Pikett clearly did, he said. “He’s been doing it so long, he doesn’t understand why we don’t see it.”
That's pretty amazing coverage for the recent report (pdf) by my former employers at the Innocence Project of Texas. As journalists like to say, this story has legs ... in this case four of them.
See prior, related Grits coverage:
- 'Scent lineup' evidence may be used in Anthony Graves capital case
- CNN profiles cop wrongly accused by dog scent lineup
- A 'scent lineup'? Rover in the witness box
- DNA exoneration indicts Rover in the witness box
- 'Scent lineups stink to critics'
- 3 false convictions relied on dog-based scent lineups in Florida
- Scent lineups by dogs don't pass the smell test
- Texas Innocence Project vetting dog scent lineup cases
- Evidence mounts against dog handler, scent lineups
- Texas Innocence Project report discredits dog 'scent lineups'
- More innocent people accused by dog 'scent lineups,' but FBI now using technique