The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an acquittal in the case of Megan Winfrey, 24, who has been behind bars since 2007 in a murder case in which her conviction was based almost entirely on evidence from dog-scent lineups. The court’s decision Wednesday in Megan Winfrey’s case was based largely on the finding that the state’s evidence against her was insufficient. In her case, the San Jacinto district attorney had argued that along with dog-scent evidence, her suspicious behavior amounted to enough evidence to support her conviction. Prosecutors alleged, among other things, that she attempted to thwart DNA testing by shaving her pubic hair and that teachers at her school overheard her make threatening remarks about Burr and his money. The court disagreed with the prosecutors.
Dogs are used in conjunction with law enforcement all the time, either as a defense force, for use in detection of drugs and other illegal substances, bomb detection, and in this case, to allegedly identify a murderer.
Drug dogs and other dogs used to determine criminal activity, even though specially trained for a purpose, are still dogs. Dogs get excited and will alert to things like tennis balls in trunks other animals in the vicinity. The Court must consider the totality of the circumstances in determining one’s guilt or innocence. Therefore, determining whether the dog’s identification of a substance or scent was sufficiently accurate and reliable as a detector of the presence of drugs, victims, or other criminal-related activity is very important and comes within the review of the courts.
A dog-scent lineup consists of matching a “scent” sample from a crime scene to a “scent” sample from a suspect by a dog. The practice has been used in several states, including Florida, Alaska, Texas, and New York. Even though the dogs have an fairly accurate sense of smell, the major problem has been with the handlers of these dogs, who have been proven to be frauds.
There is a movement to ban the use of dog-scent lineups, but a Fifth Circuit ruling may put a stop on that; the decision held that even if a person was convicted after a questionable canine lineup, the appellate court can affirm the conviction based on corroborating evidence.
The most notorious specialist of this bogus practice has been Former Deputy Keith Pikett of Fort Bend County, Texas. From 1994-2009 he zigzagged across the state of Texas with his dogs, conducting dog-scent lineups. Pikett always told law enforcement and prosecutors exactly what they wanted to hear. The prosecutors loved him, known for being a “justice system rock star.” At one point, his status as an expert was even recognized by an appellate court decision, which gave him extra footing in the legal community, leaving him unchecked in his work.
If Pikett’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his scent lineups were involved in Winfrey’s case. Basing a finding of one’s guilt on inference evidence and other hearsay evidence is, at best, mere theorizing or guessing about one’s possible guilt rather than a reasonable inference based upon evidence and facts presented.
The same thing happened in 1981 in Florida, when DNA testing wasn’t used in criminal investigations. During that time, law enforcement simply relied on presumed “Scent-Tracking Expert” John Preston’s German Shepherd’s legendary nose to sentence Bill Dillon, to life in prison for killing a man in Canova Beach. Preston testified that his dog had tracked Dillon’s scent to a piece of paper he had touched, and had even tracked Dillon to a room he was in at the courthouse. In Dillon’s case, Preston even told the court his dog had the ability to track a scent under water; to actually smell below the water, which is physically impossible for a dog to do. In 1984, Preston was exposed as a fraud.
Many times, a motion to suppress evidence is the only thing that forces law enforcement to adhere to the Constitution, by making sure that evidence like this will not hold water and will be excluded, leaving the State with no case. If one obtains an experienced Jacksonville criminal defense attorney to fight the case, one will be sure in what the prosecution and police can and cannot not use against one and can be sure that one will have one’s rights protected.
The Forbess Law Firm has been aiding clients who face criminal charges in Jacksonville for years and are here to provide aggressive criminal defense to anyone accused of a crime. If you or a loved one require a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer, contact our firm today. We are available through our website or by calling us at 904-634-0900.
Additional Source: Appeals Court Issues Acquittal in Dog-Scent Murder Case, Brandi Grissom, The Texas-Tribune