Monday, October 05, 2009

CNN profiles cop wrongly accused by dog 'scent lineup'

CNN has a feature today on dog scent lineups performed in Texas by Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett, honing in on a case from Victoria where Pikett's dogs falsely accused a Victoria Sheriff's Deputy. This fellow has a pretty darn compelling story:
The interrogation room inside the Victoria County Sheriff's Office is sterile and cold. There's a table in the middle, a one-way mirror and a hidden video camera that lets investigators watch suspects.

Michael Buchanek knows the room well. He was part of countless investigations. Buchanek spent more than 25 years with the Sheriff's Office as a commander of operations.

But on March 16, 2006, Buchanek found himself sitting in the interrogation room. This time, he was on the other side of the table. The day before, his neighbor and friend, Sally Blackwell, was found strangled to death with a rope. Her body was left in a field five miles from her home.

Buchanek sat in the interrogation room with three homicide investigators, former brothers on the force. But the investigators were no longer friends. Buchanek was now the prime suspect in Blackwell's murder.

"They told me they knew I did it and that I was going to spend the rest of my life on death row," Buchanek told CNN.

The story of how a veteran law enforcement officer became a murder suspect is at the heart of a controversy over an investigative forensic tool called dog-scent lineups. ...

Despite repeated denials, Buchanek lived under a cloud of suspicion for five months. His former Sheriff's Office colleagues believed the dogs over him and his pleas of innocence. But the dogs were wrong.

DNA evidence implicated another man, who pleaded guilty to the murder.

"It's left me with a pretty bad taste for law enforcement," Buchanek said. "It's pretty much ruined my life altogether."

Buchanek has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Pikett, the dog handler in Fort Bend County, as well as the Victoria Sheriff's Office and the Victoria Police Department. Buchanek is seeking unspecified damages claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was falsely accused and that he suffered mental anguish as a result.

See prior, related Grits coverage:


doran said...

I wonder if any defense attorneys have raised hearsay objections to the "testimony" of dogs. That is what it is, of course: The dog communicates to the handler and the handler sets in the witness chair and communicates the dog's testimony to the jury. That would be hearsay for sure if the dog were human. The dog is not human. So why is the dog allowed to communicate evidence to a jury?

doran said...

Look at it this way. If Pickett shows up at aother trial to communicate to a jury what his dogs have communicated to him, a defense attorney could call Former Deputy Buchanek as a witness either pre-trial, to throw out Pickett's dog's testimony as not being scientifically sound, or at trial, to impeach whom? Not Pickett, because he would have to be lying under oath about what his dog tells him, and he shouldn't be assumed to be a damned liar and perjurer. No, it would be the dog who's veracity and believableness would be impeached. How? Prior unconsistant statements, maybe. But to do this, you have to give the impeached witness the opportunity to explain those prior inconsistent statements. So the dog has to be cross examined??

What if it is a different dog om the new case? The prosecutor would probably object that Buchanek's experience with another dog, and therefore his testimony, is not relevant to the testimoney of the dog used in the instant case.

What if the dog who communicated to Pickett in the instant case has died before trial? Can't cross examine a dead dog, can you?

Hell, dogs are not even mentioned in the evidence code as beings who are competent to be witnesses.

How did we get into a stupid situation like this? I think it is because of arrogant, egotistical law enforcement like Pickett, prosecutors who will use any kind of reed, no matter how frail or how much stinky stuff there is on the end it, to get a conviction, and judges who consider themselves to be little more than foot soldiers in the "war on crime."

Hook Em Horns said...

Whether it is sniffing for a suspect or sniffing for dope...the dogs are frequently wrong but again...who cares? It's TEXAS!

Charlie O said...

"It's left me with a pretty bad taste for law enforcement," Buchanek said. "It's pretty much ruined my life altogether."

That's an interesting and telling statement from a cop. Now he knows what the rest of us go through nearly every time we have to deal with any LEO.

Anonymous said...

Why is this still being used, I've seen more stories about it not working than I have about it being correct.

Yes Man said...

There is an element of man-bites-dog about this story.

Its sad but we have come to expect regular citizens to be falsely accused. We expect it so much that it isn't even news.

We don't expect the police to wrongly accuse another policeman. Now THAT is news!

CNN has devolved into news of the weird and celebrity gossip.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it obvious that as the victim's neighbor and friend, the dogs picked up his scent on her and on the path between their homes? They didn't do anything wrong -- it's the assumption that this was the ONLY line of scent that is the error. The dogs aren't fallible -- it's the people as usual!

Unknown said...

I was a Jury Foreman in a burglary case involving 3 teens in 2007and the key evidence was the scent lineup from the very same dogs of Deputy Pikett. These teens also had the misfortune of having a state provided attorney in Harris County in Texas. The lawyer assigned asked no questions about the scent lineup, such as ensuring that the evidence had not been tainted. There were many questions that I wanted answers too but of course we could not ask them, and the horrible defense attorney asked random questions as if he had never tried a case. On top of that, the judge was a hangman's judge and any time a witness tried to provide information that was not specifically asked he cut off the witness and threatened them with "contempt of court."

My primary concern was that the very same police officials that arrested and touched the teens also collected the scent evidence. On the one hand, Mr. Pikett during his testimony was making grand statements about how infallible his dogs were, what an expert witness he was and how everyone came to him for his dogs expertise, and how sensitive the dogs noses were but his scent lineup and processing of evidence seemed shoddy. The prosecutor showed us a video of the dogs at work, we watched either a training exercise or an actual scent lineup and the people assisting were either his wife or a friend to set up the lineup (I can't remember which, but it bothered me). Instead of making me feel comfortable about how scientific it was it did the exact opposite.
I used to work in HR and feel like I am okay at reading people, but Mr. Pikett testimony also bothered me on a different level, he seemed to enjoy the notoriety, his status appeared to be wrapped up in his dogs and his conviction that they were infallible really scared me because he appeared to have lost his objectivity.

I was actually one of two jurists that held out for a while about convicting the teen, but eventually we consented to a guilty verdict. I even made special requests of the judge during deliberation about what information we could consider, but based on his directions and the very small box of what we could consider both us went along with a guilty verdict. In hind sight I really wish I had held out longer.

I felt like the trial was a kangaroo trial and this teen was not going to get a fair shake. It validated my thoughts that If I ever found myself cross with the law, I would sell everything to get a decent attorney. It also further convinced me that poor people that have state provided attorneys in Texas should not be executed because they can be so shoddy. This really opened my eyes to the court system and that it was not as fair as I had hoped.

Anonymous said...

Considering that this sort of Hearsay's not admissible in court per Crawford v. Washington (How can you be "Confronted" by the Dog? And the handler can't testify on behalf of the Dog- doesn't count...) I wonder just what sort of case they had. If that was the sole basis, the DA for that county is in deep doggie doo- they're supposed to know 6th Amendment applies for all Hearsay in a Criminal or Quasi-Criminal proceeding and the SCOTUS has held all but things like Bank Statements are not admissible in Court (and a case based off of an initial inadmissible item dies on the spot...).

As for the sympathies, after a fashion. I too have a very bad taste for Law Enforcement from recent times- and damned near got put in jail for fabricated crap (I am posting anon to avoid revealing details as I will be talking with the ACLU over the law used on me (Fails against Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to Due Process...) and over the conduct of the LEOs and other County Officials over the willful and repeated Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights in their process of proving up their "case" they had.

Of course, if it DOES get filed, you will all connect the dots- but that's fine at that point in time. I don't want the bastards that did what they did to myself and three of my friends try to wiggle free of what they've got coming to them now.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Bubba... You should have held out. I don't give a damn about what the Judge told you- if it wasn't beyond a shadow of a doubt (and it looks like you had some honest ones...) you should have voted Not-Guilty. That is your solemn requirement as a Juror. Not what the Judge herds you down into. The Judge can't hold you in contempt- but you can at least hang a jury if needs be if there's a crime being committed- and it looks like one was being done, just not the one the kid was being accused of.

Anonymous said...

Treat everyone with courtesy and respect. You never know which one will be sitting on your jury.

Now that statement is closer to a reality in this day and age.

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show anyone can be falsely accused. Years ago I happened to be in an area where a murder occurred and I was driving a vehicle similar to one spotted there at the time it happened. The homicide squad pulled me over as I was leaving for work and questioned me for an hour about my reason for being in the area that day. I had witnesses verifying what I said, but that case went unsolved for a few years and I had to walk around wondering whether they were trying to peg me for it and it was just a matter of time before the sh_t hit the fan.

Yea, it can happen to you too. The "tough on crime" crowd doesn't get that.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pikett's testimony is an "expert" opinion, which can be based on hearsay. So, even assuming that a first-hand observation of a dog's behavior, related in court, would count as hearsay (and it wouldn't), it's admissible as the basis for expert testimony. The problem here is not the admissibility of hearsay, but the utter bunk that is counted as expert testimony. In my experience as a criminal defense lawyer, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and even judges are completely unqualified to distinguish between scientific evidence and pure hokum. Skepticism and even common sense fly out the window so long as a witness supports the prosecutor's theory of the case.

That being said, the former deputy can cry me a river. How many times did he perform an illegal search and then claim he saw something in "plain view"? How many people did he pull over for no reason other than he wanted to search their car? How many times did he misrepresent statements by arrestees? How many times did he out-and-out lie on the stand? Maybe none, but in my experience that's pretty unlikely.

doran said...

Anon 1:50. You are correct about the Junk Science of dog sniffing, and about the "expertise" of people like Pickett, and about the widely spread ignorance of The Bench about what constitutes science.

But, if Pickett is allowed to testify, as an expert, on the basis of hearsay, then a defendant is, or should be allowed to subpoena and examine the source of the underlying hearsay. That gets us back to cross examining the cur.

What fun it would be to raise these kinds of issues on behalf of a client....

[Evolved Ideas] Austen Jones said...

i hope that falsely accused man gets his pay day. i hate cops that are never wrong. lol when they are wrong like half the time.