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More on scent lineups

The Chron had a good story yesterday about “scent lineups” and the problems they’ve caused in criminal cases. Since one of the main arguments raised by the defenders of the Todd Willingham verdict seems to be that the experts involved are a bunch of bleeding heart liberals, I figured we’d take a look at what the experts are saying about Fort Bend County Keith Pikett and his incredibly accurate dogs.

As publicity spread about Pikett’s work, more and more police agencies and prosecutors began to use him. He has said he has no idea of how many cases his dogs have been involved in, but it numbers in the thousands. He also has testified that his dogs have almost never been wrong. One of them, “Clue,” erred once in 1,659, he has testified, while “James Bond” made one mistake in 2,266 tries.

Well-known police dog trainer Bob Eden, who has written two books on the subject and helped develop minimum training standards, calls such numbers incredible. Literally. Although dogs can perform with amazing consistency, Eden said, handlers are all but certain to make blunders and inadvertently tip the dog to the desired match, or to an incorrect match if the handler has no knowledge of the correct one.

Of equal concern, Eden said, is the absence of carefully recorded training records to demonstrate the dog’s proficiency and error rate. Pikett has acknowledged that he does not keep such records.

“Prosecutors should never put him on the stand without training records,” Eden said. “Everything that is done with that dog should have a training record.”

Three experts hired by the Innocence Project criticized Pikett’s work. The former head of police dog training in the United Kingdom, Bob Coote, reviewed a video of one of Pikett’s scent lineups and was appalled.

“This is the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed,” Coote stated. “If it was not for the fact that this is a serious matter, I could have been watching a comedy.”

I look forward to hearing the epithets that will be hurled at Eden and Coote the first time there’s a big push to exonerate someone that was convicted by one of Pikett’s dogs. I suppose if there’s a bright side to this latest innocence frontier, it’s that a lot of the cases that have been publicized so far involved people who were freed before they faced trial, though not necessarily before they spent time in jail. The Victoria Advocate has a couple of good examples, such as this:

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.

You have to marvel at the idea that video of a crime that shows a perpetrator who looks nothing at all like the accused isn’t enough to outweigh a dog scent identification. I can just imagine the summary argument for the prosecution: “Who are you going to believe, our dog or your lying eyes?” Grits has more.

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