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Hounds’ Noses Questioned, Convicted Murderer to Go Free

Quincy, James Bond, and Clue are sporting hangdog looks these days, and not just because they're bloodhounds. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has acquitted...

Maria Goodavage  |  Sep 23rd 2010


The noses of bloodhounds like these are being called into question more and more in criminal cases. Actually, I'm not so sure the law should take any evidence from the middle dog too seriously. He doesn't exactly look Einsteinian... (Photo: NATURE's Underogs)

Quincy, James Bond, and Clue are sporting hangdog looks these days, and not just because they’re bloodhounds. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has acquitted a man who was convicted of murder primarily on the evidence of these sniffer dogs. It’s a good day for the convicted man, but not exactly a red-letter day for the dogs.

I might not feel too comfortable is if this were the dog whose nose and guile would determine if I'd be sent to prison.

The conviction of Richard Winfrey, Sr., in the 2004 murder of Murray Burr was based primarily on positive scent identification by the dogs, according to an AP article. The appeals court ruled the evidence was not sufficient.

The dogs identified Winfrey in a scent lineup. Here’s how an AP article from last year described scent lineups as performed by Fort Bend County Deputy Sheriff Keith Pikett:

“During a scent lineup, an officer wipes individual pieces of gauze or cloth on a suspect and several other people, and then places them in separate coffee cans, according to the lawsuits against Pikett. A trained dog is presented a piece of crime scene evidence, and is then led by Pikett to each can for a whiff. The dog is supposed to signal Pikett if it sniffs a match.”

At least three other lawsuits are pending against Pikett from men who say they were wrongly jailed because of his dogs. Scent identification lineups are coming under increasing fire as being junk science.

k-a2a1f2896f00a19b“This is exactly the kind of down-home voodoo that jurors like because, hey, everybody likes a dog,” Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said in the AP article from last year. “Why don’t they just have a guy who says he has a unicorn that can figure out who criminals are?”

I can give him three reasons dogs are better for the job than unicorns. 1) Horses — hence, unicorns — are not known for their sense of smell. When’s the last time you saw a horse or unicorn sniffing out disaster victims, or luggage at an airport? 2) Their horns would end up hurting more than helping. 3) They’d always be trying to get to Candy Mountain.

Bloodhounds are famed for their incredible sense of smell. They’re known as “a nose with a dog attached.” But in this new era of exquisitely accurate DNA tests, the evidence they turn up may not hold up in court. As it is, Texas and Florida are the only states that use it regularly.

If things continue as they have been, you may see more bloodhounds in the unemployment lines. But if anyone can sniff out a new job, they can.