Fort Bend has no plans to stop controversial lineups
BY LESLIE WILBER - LWILBER@VICAD.COM
Nov. 4, 2009 at 5:04 a.m.
Updated Nov. 5, 2009 at 5:05 a.m.
WHAT IS A SCENT LINEUP?
To conduct lineups, investigators swab suspects to capture their scents. That sample is then put in a line with scents from five other people. A dog sniffs another item - typically evidence from the crime scene, then smells all six scent samples to find a match.
Randy Morse, Pikett's attorney, says his client has successfully used this technique for 20 years. Critics say the lineups are filled with error caused by poor evidence collection and human interaction with the dogs.
RICHMOND - Scent identification lineups won't end, the sheriff here said Wednesday, as a deputy became a defendant in a fourth lawsuit.
Sheriff Milton Wright defended the work of Deputy Keith Pikett as a valuable tool for building criminal cases.
The latest complaint alleges Pikett used fraud to pin crimes including murder and burglary on three Houston men. With no evidence beyond the hounds' identification, the cases against Ronald Curtis, Cedric Johnson and Curvis Bickham collapsed, according to a complaint filed by Houston attorney Katherine Scardino.
Criticism of Pikett's methods started in 2008, when former Victoria County Sheriff's captain Michael Buchanek, 55, filed suit claiming civil rights violations by Pikett and other investigators. Buchanek's home was searched after Pikett's dogs walked from the site where Sally Blackwell's body was found, to her home, then to Buchanek's nearby house.
The dogs also picked Buchanek's scent in a series of lineups. Another man later confessed to the murder, and is spending life in prison.
Then came a suit by 43-year-old Calvin Lee Miller. The Yoakum man spent two months in jail, accused of robbery and aggravated sexual assault based on scent evidence.
DNA evidence cleared Miller, but he still felt forced to move from his hometown after his release.
Since those suits were filed, lawyers have seen scent lineups as a juicy peach, and everyone wants a bite, Wright said.
"I think once they lose they'll pack up their tents and go," Wright said.
Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, doesn't plan to abandon the fight. Blackburn authored a scathing study of Pikett's practices in September and called for legislators and law enforcement to halt to the lineups.
Scent lineups are just one example of junk science that's been allowed into Texas courtrooms, Blackburn said.
According to the report, Pikett doesn't keep accurate records, nor does he conform to accepted scientific practices.
"That is a perfect example of irresponsibility of law enforcement and proof of why we're going to have to keep fighting for criminal justice reform in this state," Blackburn said in response to Wright's defense of Pikett.
Pikett is a responsible deputy who operates according to department policy, Wright said. The sheriff's office only uses scent identification as one piece of evidence to establish probable cause.
"Just because the dog says this is it, that's not a conviction," Wright said.
But the cases against Pikett suggest some investigators relied almost exclusively on scent lineups to make arrests. A lineup and an unidentified witness' word Miller bought drugs with cash led to his arrest, according to an affidavit.
Wright hadn't read the affidavit, which was prepared by a Yoakum police officer.
"I think this will go away," Wright said.