Sunday, September 27, 2009

More innocent people accused by dog 'scent lineups' but FBI now using technique

Yet more people were identified this week who'd been falsely accused by dogs in "scent lineups"after the Innocence Project of Texas released a new report (pdf) on Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett and his bloodhounds. The Houston Chronicle describes the case of Curvis Bickham ("Scent lineups may be failing smell test," Sept. 27), where the defendant spent eight months in jail on capital charges:

“I lost my home, I lost my business, I lost my reputation,” Bickham said. “I have three little boys depending on me — ages 6, 8 and 9 — and they charge me with the most heinous thing they can charge a man with.”

Bickham, 49, gets emotional in the retelling of the October 2008 arrest and the painful months that followed before charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

The evidence against Bickham may have been slight, little more than a positive reaction from Keith Pikett's bloodhound. But it was enough to charge him.

Now Bickham has added his voice to the growing chorus of critics who call Pikett a fraud and the use of so-called scent lineups “voodoo science.”

“This has got to stop,” Bickham said.

Meanwhile, the Victoria Advocate identified two new cases where defendants spent up to a year in jail pretrail based on one of Pikett's scent lineups before they were cleared, including one who saw charges dismissed this week. Reported the Advocate ("More suspects point fingers at dog-scent lineups," Sept. 25):

On Wednesday, prosecutors dismissed a case against 26-year-old Jamal Miller. Miller was accused in a 2008 bank robbery, based entirely on scent evidence, said his lawyer, Damiane Curvey Banieh.

Prosecutors had video of the robbery, Banieh said, and her client looked nothing like the man in the tape. Miller was 70 pounds thinner and had darker skin than the man in the tape, Banieh said.

Most notably, though, Miller was clean-shaven because he worked at a plant and federal safety regulations prohibited facial hair, Banieh said. The man in the video had a goatee and mustache.

"It's amazing how bull-headed they were once they had the scent lineup," Banieh said.

Harris County prosecutor Angela Welton said the case was dismissed because of lack of evidence.

"Scent evidence was one piece of evidence that was looked at," she said.

Roetzel said her group, which works to free the falsely convicted, was also contacted by Ronald Curtis this week. The 39-year-old Houston man said he spent a year in prison for a crop of 2007 burglaries he did not commit.

"That was a year of my life wasted," he said. "I lost my car. I lost my job. My credit was ruined."

Again, the results of a scent lineup accounted for most of the evidence against Curtis. A video from the crimes clearly showed Curtis was not the burglar, he said.

Even so, just as Texas comes to grips with shoddy forensic "scent lineups" by law enforcement, it's somewhat disturbing to learn that the FBI is developing its own stockpile of scent evidence that's apparently being stored about suspects en masse, reminiscent of the scent warehouse in Cuba used to target political dissidents. According to a TV station in Albuquerque:

The FBI is using new technology at crime scenes that can literally bottle up a person's distinct odor.

The STU 100 Portable Vacuum Collection Unit has been in service in FBI offices for the past two years.

The unit collects scents "in such a way that can store that scent for later use," FBI Special Agent Darrin Jones told KRQE News 13.

The FBI used the unit to collect the odor of Joseph Burgess, better known as "the Cookie Bandit," who died in a shootout in the Jemez Mountains that also killed a Sandoval County sheriff's sergeant. According to the New Mexico Police Report on the shootout, the FBI had Burgess' clothing processed to maintain his distinctive scent.

The unit vacuums the odor onto sterile scent pads. The scent pads are then stored inside a sealed tube for later use.

I'd like to learn more about how and how often the FBI uses scent lineups by dogs and the scope of what must be a massive growing catalog of suspect scents. For that matter, I wonder if they've used Deputy Pikett?


Scott in South Austin said...

I hope that the FBI is using gas chromatographs and mass spectrometry instead of Fido’s nose. These technologies, under proper supervision, are capable of producing reliable and reproducible results.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nope, according to the linked story, "The scent can ... be used in scent line-ups where a discriminating dog can pick someone out of a police line-up."

Karo said...

The Defense Attorney calls a Water Witch to testify about how the divining rod shows the defendant was actually framed by the dog handler... and the polygraph operator weeps quietly in the corner.

Anonymous said...

The reason Dogs are getting used is that the dogs are cheaper than the proper gear and can get convictions- never mind that while the dogs probably get it more right than we'd think, the handlers are the ones that make determinations- and they're biased, fallible, etc.

But then, what's a few innocent people on the War on Crime- it's just friendly fire casualties, right?