In Controversial Scent Lineups, a Dog’s Nose Picks Out the Perp

By Brett Israel | November 4, 2009 3:10 pm

bloodhound-webCurvis Bickham spent eight months in prison for a triple-homicide because a police dog confused his scent with that of the killer. Now Bickham and others who spent months in jail after dogs linked their scents to evidence from crimes they did not commit are filing a lawsuit claiming Texas authorities falsely arrested and imprisoned them, their attorney said Tuesday [AP]. In a scent lineup, dogs sniff items found at a crime scene, and then sniff jars swabbed with the suspects’ scents and the scents of others not involved in the crime. When the dogs link crime scene and suspect, that evidence is often relied on heavily in court by the prosecution. Alaska, Florida, New York and Texas all use scent lineups to link suspects to crimes.

Dogs are used all the time to fight crimefrom sniffing out bombs and drugs to locating dead bodies. However, scent lineups have critics barking. They say the lineups are poorly controlled, and argue that avoiding cross-contamination is basically impossible. The main target of the current lawsuit is Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett—whose home-trained bloodhounds identified the suspects. A 2004 F.B.I. report warned that dog scent work “should not be used as primary evidence,” but only to corroborate other evidence. In several of the cases that were based on Deputy Pikett’s dogs, however, the scent lineups appear to have provided the primary evidence, even when contradictory evidence was readily available [The New York Times]. Deputy Pikett, by his own estimation, has conducted thousands of scent lineups.

The three men who filed the lawsuit against Deputy Pickett were all eventually set free after contradictory evidence proved their innocence. The Innocence Project of Texas, a legal defense organization … released a report last month that excoriated dog scent lineups as a “junk science injustice” [The New York Times]. Dog scent lineups bring to mind another high profile forensic science debate in Texas that many believe led to the execution of an innocent man. Now that the science behind dog scent lineups is coming under the same scrutiny, one can’t help but wonder if scent lineups might have led to a similar outcome.

Related Content:
80beats: Think DNA Evidence Can’t Be Faked? Think Again.
80beats: NYC Uses DNA to Indict Suspects to Be Named Later
80beats: DNA Sampling of Innocent-Until-Proven-Guilty People Is on the Rise
DISCOVER: Reasonable Doubt examines the fallibility of DNA evidence

Image: flickr / contadini


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