Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Texas Innocence Project report discredits unscientific dog 'scent lineups'

Yesterday the Innocence Project of Texas released its report criticizing "scent lineups" used by Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett, who as regular readers know has seen his dogs' identification of suspects debunked in several recent, high-profile cases, including two capital murders. See a copy here (pdf) and initial coverage from the Houston Chronicle and the Victoria Advocate. The brief report, written by IPOT legal director Jeff Blackburn, is well worth a full read but I thought I'd point out a few highlights.

One new fact-bite in the report concerns the use of scent lineups in communist Cuba, where "secret police have amassed thousands of bottles of scents taken from anti-Castro slogans painted on walls and other such 'crime scenes' and are using them as 'proof' against dissidents." A footnote pointed out this recent Miami Herald story on the use of scent lineups in Cuba, where we get a glimpse of the totalitarian origins of this bizarre practice:
the use of 'criminal odorology' started in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, was developed by the former East Germany and in 1972 was established around Communist-ruled Europe.

After East Germany collapsed in 1989, West German investigators found a warehouse packed with tens of thousands of sealed jars containing bits of cloth impregnated with the odors of criminals and dissidents -- used to identify or track them.
(See an academic paper in Spanish on the use of scent lineups in Cuba.)

But the meat of the report related to Deputy Keith Pikett, who along with his wife undertook training pet bloodhounds as police dogs in the early '90s "on their own without using any known or established program."

The most extensive scientific testing of "scent lineup" methods has occurred in the Netherlands says IPOT, citing this 2002 New York Times story. They use elaborate methodologies which include controls that Deputy Pikett has not adopted.

When he gets into the courtroom, Pikett has sometimes misrepresented his credentials. In one of his first big cases he "testified that he had a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree from Syracuse University and a Master's degree in Chemistry from the University of Houston. This was a lie: Pikett has never received degrees from either institution." In the case where appellate courts formally affirmed his status as an expert witness, he also misrepresented himself as having a masters degree in Chemistry. Defense attorneys in that case did not challenge his testimony.

Pikett asserts outlandish success rates for his dogs, claiming one of them had only made one error in 2,831 lineups. "According to the research done by the Dutch police and other experts in the field, this is absurd. Even using rigorous training methods, experts believe that the best dogs worked in perfectly controlled conditions can only be right approximately 85% of the time."

According to the report, "Pikett has also claimed that his dogs can identify scents more than a decade old and that they can follow scents left by cars - claims which have been criticized by experts in this field."

The report quotes police dog experts from the around the country (including from the National Police Bloodhound Association) and from the UK harshly criticizing Pikett's methods. One called him an "unprofessional charlatan." Another concluded Pikett had "intentionally misspoke concerning the capabilities and expertise of his scent discriminating bloodhounds in given situations."

Finally, the report calls on police agencies and prosecutors to immediately stop using scent lineups by Deputy Pikett, and for the Attorney General to "conduct a full and complete investigation into every case in which scent lineups have been used, and to aid in the release of any person convicted on such testimony."

The recommendation about the AG vetting these old cases is particularly salient. Who knows how many false convictions have been obtained using this type of garbage evidence?

See prior, related Grits coverage:


Scott D said...

IPOT did a great job on this. Law enforcement is hard enough without this kind of chicanery being allowed to stand as factual. What really is unfortunate is the fact that even when he was discovered to have lied about his credentials that he was still allowed to testify as an expert witness.

Anonymous said...

Why is that law enforcement officers who commit perjury are never prosecuted?

Anonymous said...

This is yet another reason for believing that the number of innocent people who are found to be legally guilty is much higher than previous estimates, although I am probably missing something in the way that I calculate it...

Feel free to help me out here...I am probably missing something, but this is how I am looking at the issue. The problem of the viable denominator in trying to estimate number of innocent people who are actually convicted could be approached as follows, using the numbers that Grits gave from the article 'Texas criminal justice system has major flaws': Estimating

innocent people in prison at http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2009/09/texas-criminal-justice-system-has-

major.html .

My understanding is that we can divide the 38 exonerations out of 400 available DNA sample that are available to be tested ( see http://www.reason.com/news/show/125596.html ). That's 9.5% . Now, if we use the Grits methodology from his article entitled "How many innocents in prison: Exonerations make up 3% of Texas DNA case resolutions" (see http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2008/06/how-many-innocents-in-prison.html ), then we would use percentage and apply it to the 160,000 Texas convicts, which gives 15,200. It gets even scarier if you look at the Pew Center Report "1 in 31 U.S. Adults are Behind Bars, on Parole or Probation" at http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=49398 . It says that 1 out of every 22 people in Texas is under the correctional control (prison, probation, parole, jail). For the year end of 2007, that was 797,254 people. If you multiple by our innocent rate of 9.5% , that's more than 75,000 people.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:26. I think you may be on to something. I suspect your numbers are probably more accurate than the lower estimates I've seen.

Fishcake said...

Does the Innocence Project claim any portion of the false-conviction reprarations money as a sort of finder's fee?

If not, maybe they should.

doran said...

Grits, will you let us know how prosecutors respond to this Report on the District and County Attorneys web site? I'd do it myself, but I'm not welcome in that neighborhood; every time I go there, I get rocks chunked at me and those guys chase me off. They're not nice to people who criticise them.....

Anonymous said...

This garbage science smells to high heaven and you don't need a dog to recognize it! :~)

Anonymous said...

Whenever there is "junk science", ya better take a look at the direction that the bad smell is coming from... and trends indicate that it is on the side of power, executive branch, police, prosecutos, etc... Just a few days ago, I found this nugget...

Report: CIA interrogations informed by bad science - Yahoo! News

(liberty@northtexans4liberty.org) has sent you a news article. 
(Email address has not been verified.)
Personal message:

WASHINGTON – Prolonged stress from the CIA's harsh interrogations could have impaired the memories of terrorist suspects, diminishing their ability to recall and provide the detailed information the spy agency sought, according to a scientific paper published Monday.

The methods could even have caused the suspects to create — and believe — false memories, contends the paper, which scrutinizes the techniques used by the CIA under the Bush administration through the lens of neurobiology. It suggests the methods are actually counterproductive, no matter how much suspects might eventually say.

Report: CIA interrogations informed by bad science - Yahoo! News


Anonymous said...

The Texas Innocence Project is obligated to discredit any police practice in use today. There is no "shock and awe" in this story.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 6:46pm :

Sort of like the prosecutor is obligated to find a person guilty of a charge? If your point is that the Texas Innocence Project might have a bias, so what? Everybody has a bias... what matters is what they can prove using agreed on methods rather than "junk science" ( i.e. doggy sniff tests). Since what is being proposed here is nothing more than using Grits own methodology , but with a known denomintor ( the number of available Texas DNA samples used to convict someone of a violent crime ), the issue can only be either Grits original methodology, or the chosen denominator itself. I don't see a problem with Grits methodology, so the issue under debate is whether the chosen denominator is valid.

Nimby said...

"Sort of like the prosecutor is obligated to find a person guilty of a charge?"

Are you being sarcastic or are you truly unaware of a prosecutor's duty?

Anonymous said...

I am perpetually baffled by the failure of the media, or any credible scientific body, to attack on of the worst examples of junk science in Texas: the predictions made some psychiatrists in capital cases that a defendant will be a future danger to society. The usual suspects from the psychiatric community who make these predictions, which have been demonstrated to be hopelessly unreliable continue to ply their trade without any public outrage. One of them, Dr. Richard Coons, has charged over $ 400 an hour for his predictions. This is an appalling waste of public money, leaving aside the fact that his modus operandi is unsupported by any scientific sources. Why isn't anyone writing about that?

Anonymous said...


Exoneree says $1 million in civil attorneys fees excessive; Attorney says client agreed to 25 percent of compensation
2:56 PM Wed, Sep 23, 2009 | Permalink | Yahoo! Buzz
Jennifer Emily/Reporter Bio | E-mail | News tips

A Dallas County man exonerated last year by DNA evidence has filed a lawsuit against his civil lawyer, saying the $1million fee is excessive and that the attorney did not actually provide any legal services.

"It just comes down to a basic thing of fairness," the exonereee, Steven Charles Phillips, said Wednesday. "There's just a great unfairness to the bottom line of one million bucks."

Phillips filed the lawsuit Friday, days after he fired the Lubbock attorney Kevin Glasheen, who also represents 11 other exonerees throughout the state.

Glasheen said he did provide legal services and Phillips is just trying to get out of paying his bill. Glasheen said the signed agreement between Phillips and his law firm is for 25 percent of any compensation or 40 percent if they had won a lawsuit.

"This is just a case of a guy who waits until all the work is done and he doesn't want to pay," Glasheen said. "I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars out of my own pocket and thousands of hours."

Read the lawsuit and agreement between Phillips and the lawfirm: Phillips lawsuit and agreement

But Phillips' attorney, Randy Turner, said he's "not aware of any legal work done by this lawyer."

Glasheen said he worked on with the Legislature on behalf of the exonerees he represents to obtain a change in the law to raise the compensation from $50,000 to

$160,000 for every year people are incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. He said that he helped draft the bill and obtained letters of support for it from the mayors of Dallas and Irving.

Glasheen also testified before the Legislature and said he dropped all other cases from November to May to work on helping the dozen exonerees he represents.
Turner said none of the items Glasheen mentioned were attorney services for Phillips.

"Those aren't legal services. Those are lobbying services. You don't have to be a licensed attorney to do those things," Turner said. "If he didn't do any legal work and he's charging $1million for helping getting a law passed, that's outrageous."

Phillips is expected to receive $2 million dollars in compensation and then another $2 million will be paid in annual installments throughout his life time.

"I don't think that was the original idea of the law - pay the lawyer $1 million bucks," Phillips said.

Phillips is one of 20 men exonerated by DNA in Dallas County, which has more exonerations than any other county in the nation since 2001 when Texas passed a law allowing post-conviction genetic testing.

Phillips was exonerated in August 2008 in a string of sex crimes after spending nearly 25 years in prison before he was paroled. Two juries found him guilty of sexual assault and burglary in the 1980s. He then pled guilty to nine more charges to avoid a life sentence.

Anonymous said...

Paul Craig Roberts: The Economy Is A Lie, Too


Americans cannot get any truth out of their government about anything, the economy included. Americans are being driven into the ground economically, with one million school children now homeless, while Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke announces that the recession is over.

The spin that masquerades as news is becoming more delusional. Consumer spending is 70% of the US economy. It is the driving force, and it has been shut down. Except for the super rich, there has been no growth in consumer incomes in the 21st century. Statistician John Williams of shadowstats.com reports that real household income has never recovered its pre-2001 peak.

The US economy has been kept going by substituting growth in consumer debt for growth in consumer income... (see link for rest of article)

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