Friday, November 16, 2012

Woman still incarcerated based on Keith Pikett dog-scent testimony

At the Texas Tribune, reprinted in the New York Times, Brandi Grissom has an update on the strange saga of Megan Winfrey and clan, who were accused of murder based on one of Fort Bend Sheriff Deputy Keith Pikett's dog scent lineups. Regular readers may recall Grits' expressing approval when the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned her father Richard Winfrey's conviction based on what Jeff Blackburn called the "junkiest" of junk science. But his daughter, convicted on the same evidence, remains incarcerated. As Grissom described it:
Mr. Winfrey and his daughter, Megan, and his son, Richard Jr., were charged with murdering Murray Burr, a janitor at Coldspring High School in Coldspring, during a robbery in 2004. Richard Winfrey Sr. and Ms. Winfrey were convicted. 

The charges against the Winfreys were based primarily on evidence gathered during a dog-scent lineup conducted by a self-trained police deputy whose work in the Winfrey case — and others — was found unreliable by experts. They said the deputy had cued the dogs to “alert” for the suspects during the scent lineups. 

Richard Winfrey Jr. was acquitted by a jury in 13 minutes, after his lawyers had presented evidence that the dog-scent lineup was a sham. 

In April, Ms. Winfrey’s lawyers told the criminal appeals court that the dog-scent evidence used to secure her conviction and life sentence was “bad science masquerading as science.” In her father’s case, the same court found that the dog-scent evidence alone was not sufficient for his conviction. They issued an acquittal in 2010, and he was released. 

But Ms. Winfrey remains in the Murray prison unit for women in Gatesville.
The Trib article also brings news of civil proceedings by the Winfreys against Keith Pikett: "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit recently agreed to allow Richard Winfrey Jr. to proceed in a lawsuit against the dog handler and two other officers involved in the murder investigation."

Notably, there has never been a comprehensive vetting of the cases Deputy Pikett worked with his dogs the way, for example, old arson cases involving junk science are being vetted in the wake of the Forensic Science Commission's report on the Todd Willingham case. Are there others before the Winfreys who went to prison framed by Pikett's dogs? In how many cases were Pikett's dog-scent lineup the primary inculpatory evidence against a defendant? Nobody knows, but Texas appellate courts had been allowing his testimony for years until Megan's father's case finally put a stop to it.

Grits fails to understand why the Court of Criminal Appeals has taken so long to decide Megan Winfrey's case, where prosecutors told the jury the dog-scent lineup was "as good as DNA," but I wish they'd hop to it. Their landmark ruling in her father's related case is now more than two years old, and if for some reason they're going to flip flop and say the same evidence is sufficient to keep the daughter in prison, the least they can do is publicly explain why. Otherwise, it's time for Megan to go home and for the broader debate to begin about how to assess possible false convictions from the same junk science used in prior cases.

See earlier coverage of the case from the Tribune and the Austin Statesman.

See also prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

"In how many cases were Pikett's dog-scent lineups the primary inculpatory evidence against a defendant?" I know of a few in my neck of the woods:

It was the only evidence relied upon by the Victoria County Sheriff when former VCSO Captain Michael Buchanek was named as a "person of interest" in a murder case after Pikett's bloodhounds allegedly tracked his scent over 5 miles from the crime scene to his home, absurd as that may seem. Another man later confessed to and was convicted of the murder.

Pikett and his dogs were later responsible for the 62 day incarceration of Calvin Miller for rape charges in an adjoining county until DNA results cleared him and he was released.

Both gentlemen subsequently filed civil suits...

Come on CCA, it's time to remedy this miscarraige of justice. Good luck, Megan!

Ashley Casas said...

Megan should have been out of the prison a long time ago. She does not deserve to be locked up because of junk science. I agree that the Court of Appeals should explain why they are still keeping Megan. Give her what she deserves, which is freedom.

Anonymous said...

Every type of forensic evidence must be disputed. Sometimes this "evidence" is all that comes between the suspect and his freedom.

Michael said...

Better (very) late than never, but the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and rendered judgments of acquittal yesterday. Chief Judge Killer dissented, of course.

Anonymous said...

I find it very disturbing that innocent people are being put in prison with this type of criminal investigating. How many are still behind bars to this day.