Legally Speaking: Scents and Sensibility -- When Evidence Doesn't Pass the Smell Test (Part 2)

John G. Browning Dec. 17, 2009, 1:47am

(Part 2 of 4)

In the first installment of this series, we examined how the controversial use of so-called "dog-scent lineups" led to wrongful accusations – and in some cases incarcerations of several innocent individuals in Texas.

At least five lawsuits are currently pending, and with the Innocence Project estimating that at least 15-20 other individuals are currently behind bars as a result of such questionable evidence, there's a good chance that more of such litigation looms on the horizon.

One man stands at the center of the allegations in these lawsuits: Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett. Who is Keith Pikett, and why has he been elevated to the status of an expert offering guidance to Texas judges and juries?

Based upon transcripts of hearings and trials in which Pikett has testified and some media profiles that have appeared over the years as his dog-handling activities gained notoriety, it's possible to piece together a biography of Keith Pikett.

He grew up in upstate New York, and joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1965. After six years of service, he left and worked at a shipyard in Mobile, Ala. Pikett obtained an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of South Alabama. He also claims to have earned a master's degree in "sport science" from another Alabama institution, the United States Sports Academy in 1984. After these credentials, however, Pikett's educational background becomes a little hazy – even for Pikett.

In the case of State of Texas v. Marcus Cotton in 1997, Pikett testified that he had a B.S. degree in chemistry from Syracuse University, as well as a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Houston. The "b.s." part may be the only part of that claim that's correct; according to letters obtained from both Syracuse and the University of Houston, Pikett has never received a degree from either institution.

Later in the 2000 case of State of Texas v. Marcus Winston, Pikett would embellish his academic pedigree even further by claiming to have a master's degree in chemistry from the University of South Alabama. Once again, there's no record of any such credential.

Pikett has subsequently testified in a deposition that the 2002 appellate opinion in the Winston case misquoted him; however, further review of the transcript of Pikett's testimony shows that the dog handler testified about this mythical master's degree at two separate junctures in the examination, under questioning by both the defense attorney and the prosecutor.

And Pikett's academic dishonesty doesn't necessarily stop there. Pikett has admitted in court testimony in State of Texas v. Richard Winfrey Jr. in 2009 that he has never published anything that was scientific in nature, nor has he published anything that was subject to peer review. Yet he apparently wants to convey the impression of having done such work.

According to a source who was present at a meeting of members of the National Police Bloodhound Association, attendees belonging to that group expressed concern that a paper presented by Pikett incorporated a copyrighted article by another member, but deleted that author's name and passed it off as his own work.

This source further indicated that at the time of the meeting, formal legal action, such as a cease and desist notice, was being contemplated against Pikett.

After his Alabama education, Pikett eventually moved to Texas, and at one point taught high school chemistry. Then he and his wife purchased a dog – a bloodhound to be exact. They decided to train it to be a police dog – something Pikett did, by his own admission, without following any formal, established training program.

Soon thereafter, Pikett began volunteering himself and his dog for use by various local law enforcement agencies. In 1990, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office started using their services for search and rescue efforts.

Pikett added another bloodhound to his kennel in 1992. He began giving his dogs colorful names: "Columbo," "Quincy," "James Bond" and "Clue."

In the early 1990s, Pikett began working with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office, eventually becoming a full-time law enforcement officer. By 1994, Pikett had begun attracting attention from local media, including the Houston Chronicle. With more time in the spotlight came bolder assertions from Pikett about his dogs' abilities; not only could these bloodhounds trail suspects and help sniff out evidence, but they could also do scent lineups.

Pikett began traveling statewide, using his bloodhounds to identify suspects and help bolster prosecutors' cases throughout Texas. With a testifying style that has been described as "enthusiastic," "down-home" and even "charming," the dog handler was a hit with juries.

Pikett and his dogs eventually gained folk hero status in law enforcement circles. Pikett was named "Officer of the Year" in 2002 by a Houston-area police support group, and that same year his dog "Quincy" was inducted into the Texas Veterinary Hall of Fame.

Pikett's work on criminal matters increased, and by the time he testified in the previously mentioned Winston case in 2000, he was widely regarded as the leading Texas authority on dog scent lineups. Pikett was accepted by the trial court as an expert witness, a holding that was affirmed by Houston's 14th Court of Appeals two years later; of course, it helped that Pikett's qualifications weren't challenged meaningfully under cross-examination and that no defense expert was brought forward to contradict the scent lineup "identification" of the defendant.

Later on, whenever the validity and reliability of scent lineups was questioned, other appellate courts would rely on the court's opinion in Winston as precedent and usually affirm a defendant's conviction.

Seemingly, as his reputation grew, so did Pikett's boasts about the abilities of his bloodhounds. Pikett did everything but claim they wore capes and leaped tall buildings in a single bound.

According to him, as of 2009 his dog "Clue" had been wrong only once out of 1,659 lineups; "Quincy" was only wrong three times out of 2,831 lineups; and "James Bond" was only wrong once in 2,266 attempts.

Pikett has maintained that his dogs can identify scents that are more than 10 years old, and that they are capable of trailing the scent of a person riding inside a motor vehicle.

What do experts in the field say about Pikett's claims, his methods, and the reliability of dog scent lineups in general?

We'll take a look at that, and at the challenges that have been raised to Keith Pikett in an effort to distinguish junk science from legitimate forensics, as this series continues.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons LLP. He may be contacted at:

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