Court reverses conviction in dog scent case
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DALLAS - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals acquitted a man convicted of murder and who was imprisoned primarily because three bloodhounds allegedly matched his scent to the crime scene.
The appeals court reversed the 2007 guilty verdict against Richard Winfrey Sr. on Wednesday, ruling such evidence is legally insufficient to convict.
The main evidence in the 2004 murder of Murray Burr was a positive scent identification from bloodhounds named Quincy, James Bond and Clue. The dogs belong to former Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett, who retired this year.
Pikett is a defendant in at least three lawsuits from men who say they were wrongly jailed after his dogs linked them to crimes they did not commit. He did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.
Pikett is also named in a lawsuit filed in 2008 by Victoria lawyer Rex Easley, who represents former Victoria County Sheriff Capt. Michael Buchanek, 55.
Easley contends Pikett and others violated his client's Fourth Amendment rights. The suit alleges scent dogs led to an unlawful search and seizure of Buchanek's property, and that inaccurate information was provided to a magistrate to secure a search warrant.
Of Wednesday's ruling, Easley said people can sleep better knowing their Constitutional rights are recognized and protected.
"It's a really big deal," the attorney said. "It is important to have relevant and reliable evidence - instead of junk science."
Victoria County District Attorney Steve Tyler applauded the ruling and Easley's work, which helped bring national attention to scent dog practices.
Easley helped to unearth patterns in similar cases and attract help from groups such as The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, the district attorney said.
"It improved our criminal justice system," Tyler said. "I think that's really important."
Additionally, former Victoria Advocate reporter Leslie Wilber first reported suspicions surrounding Pikett, his scent dogs and the techniques used to incriminate and convict suspects.
Her work also unearthed related patterns in other cases, and spurred spinoff coverage by some of the nation's biggest newspapers and magazines.
The State Bar of Texas recognized Wilber and the newspaper for this work during its 2010 Texas Gavel Awards.
Buchanek's lawsuit, meanwhile, goes to trial early next year. Will Wednesday's ruling help the case?
"I cannot comment," Easley said.