Justice gone to the dogs

By the Advocate Editorial Board
July 18, 2009 at 2:18 a.m.
Updated July 21, 2009 at 2:21 a.m.

Judges don't allow voodoo as evidence.

They also shouldn't allow the sorcery known as scent lineups. Their use in thousands of cases nationally is a little-known travesty of the criminal justice system.

In scent lineups, dogs supposedly are able to match a suspect's smell to an odor left at a crime scene. However, a Victoria Advocate investigative report revealed these dog handlers are held to no standards. They might as well be using a divining rod to finger suspects.

"This is junk science. This isn't even science. This is just junk," Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, told reporter Leslie Wilber. The group is investigating the scent lineups conducted by Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett.

Junk is perhaps too weak of a word for a practice that has led to wrongful arrests and convictions across the country. Sadly, no one has stood up for the accused until now.

That's because often the suspects are the poor or minorities who have no advocates. Some are guilty of other crimes.

Pikett's work first came under scrutiny because it wrongly led Victoria County sheriff's investigators to the doorstep of former Capt. Michael Buchanek. Anyone who watches the video of the Buchanek scent lineup, which is available for viewing at VictoriaAdvocate.com, will be astounded to see how slipshod the process is. Fortunately, law enforcement officials eventually arrested the right man in the murder of Sally Blackwell.

Things haven't always worked out so well in other cases across the country. In Florida, for example, two men each spent more than 20 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. In both cases, evidence against the men included scent lineups by a dog handler the Arizona Supreme Court later called a charlatan.

Charlatan. Sorcerer. Junk dealer.

Strong words, but the improper manufacturing of evidence should alarm all law-abiding citizens. Our justice system works only because the public trusts it.

Dogs' keen noses can be used to track suspects on the run, but they are still only animals, after all. They can't talk and be cross-examined by defense lawyers. And every American has the right to confront his accusers in a court of law.

A national group is working on standards for dog handlers. One model being considered is used in the Netherlands, where lineups are regulated and happen in near-sterile rooms without human interaction.

Until then, no court should allow even one more scent lineup as evidence. If polygraphs aren't allowed in most courts, then scent lineups have no place deciding someone's guilt or innocence. Lie-detector tests are based on more science than scent lineups using tin cans in a church parking lot - where Pikett does much of his work.

The stench from trumped-up evidence is worse than any witch's brew. The noxious odor is more than any lover of justice can bear.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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