Popular Law Enforcement Dog Handler Discredited After False Results, Exaggerated Claims of Accuracy Exposed
By: Houston Criminal Defense Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
We have blogged (False Forensics: An Attorney’s Worst Nightmare, May 1, 2009) in the past about the dangers of “false forensic” evidence being used in courtrooms to convict innocent people. The New York-based Innocence Project reported in 2007 that 65% of the nation’s first 200 DNA exonerations in this country involved fraudulent, unreliable or limited forensic science. Wrongful convictions based on false forensics—or what is commonly referred to as “junk science”—in the State of Texas occur with the same or at a greater frequency.
And what is “junk science?”
In an September 21, 2009 special report titled “Dog Scent Lineups: A Junk Science Injustice,” the Texas Innocence Project (TIP) provided the following illustrative definition: “Even before the television show ‘CSI’ became popular, juries and judges have tended to believe what ‘scientific experts’ say in criminal cases—especially if these ‘experts’ are police officers or prosecution witnesses. One study found that ‘about one quarter of jurors who were presented with scientific evidence believed that had such evidence been absent, they would have changed their verdicts—from guilty to not guilty.’ In the hands of a skilled prosecutor, scientific-sounding testimony from any source, no matter how fraudulent, can be played to great dramatic effect and win convictions.
“Prosecutors have taken full advantage of the gullibility of jurors and the willingness of courts to allow the use of these techniques. In case after case, prosecutors have used phony ‘experts’ with little or no training or education, false results from shoddy labs and dubious ‘theories’ with no basis in fact to get convictions. Taken together, these abusive practices have come to be known as the use of ‘junk science.’ The use of this ‘evidence’ is not limited to the courtroom: law enforcement agencies have come more and more to rely on it in making arrests and getting indictments.”
There is no greater “junk science” than “dog scent lineups” and the phoniest “expert” involved in this particular junk science is a Fort Bend County deputy sheriff named Keith Pikett. A native of New York, Pikett served six years in the Navy after he graduated from high school before taking a job at a ship yard in the early 1970s in Mobile, Alabama, according to TIP. He then graduated from the University of South Alabama with a chemistry degree and in 1984 received a master’s degree in “Sport Science” at an Alabama institution called United States Sports Academy.
That’s the extent of Pikett’s educational background. TIP reported that at some point after Pikett earned his “master’s degree,” he and his wife moved to Texas where they bought a bloodhound. TIP said the Piketts decided to train the bloodhound on their own, “without using any known or established program” to be a police dog. He was soon offering his services, and the scent nose of his bloodhound, to area law enforcement agencies. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in 1990 started using Pikett and his got on search and rescue missions.
Keith Pikett quickly grew fond and proud of his increasing reputation as the “hound dog” handler with law enforcement agencies. He decided to expand his “expert” dog handling operation with the 1992 purchase of yet another bloodhound named “Colombo.” TIP reported that by 1994 Pikett was boasting that Colombo could not only track, detect and rescue but could also perform scent lineups.
And just what is a “scent lineup”? Again, TIP provides an excellent definition:
“Virtually all dogs have a heightened sense of smell. This is why they have proven to be very useful in identifying distinct odors like bombs and drugs. A dog smells a scent, barks or makes a signal that it has done so, and his handler notices it. Dogs can also be used to trail scents from one location to another. The ‘evidence’ in such cases is a simple alert by the dog or the path the dog takes to get from one place to another.
“Although that kind of basic identification can be affected by a host of handler and dog errors, that is not what we are examining here. What we are looking at are cases in which dog handlers claim that their dogs have distinguished between different odors among people, identified one, and matched it to evidence from a crime scene. This is what is often referred to as a ‘scent lineup’ in the field of ‘criminal odorology.’ It is a much more complex process than picking out a package of drugs or following a scent. Research has proven that it requires the use of qualified handlers and the observance of numerous safeguards if it is to produce even marginal results.
“A ‘scent lineup’ starts with the dog being introduced to a scent sample that has been collected from a crime scene or a piece of evidence. After ‘getting’ that scent, the dog is then presented with a series of containers with similar scents in them. These scents have often been taken directly from a suspect and from others matching the general description of the suspect. The idea is that the dog will then communicate to its handler/observer if the scent that it ‘got’ the first time matches a scent in one of the containers. The handler/observer, so the theory goes, can then testify that his dog has accurately picked out the scent of a particular person or suspect. This testimony is then presented as a ‘scientific identification’ in Texas courts. It is called a ‘scent lineup’ because of its similarity to an eyewitness lineup.”
Since the early 1990s, Texas and Florida have become havens for dog scent lineups both in the law enforcement field and courtrooms—and in both states a litany of people have been wrongfully arrested and convicted as a result of this junk science evidence. Pikett and a dog handler named John Preston in Florida led the way in creating these cases. TIP reported that although Preston’s work was based on “guesses and exaggerations,” law enforcement and prosecutors used him over and over again, presenting him to dozens of juries as an “expert” testifying about a real “science.” It took DNA evidence to prove Preston had repeatedly misled juries about “dog scent” lineups. TIP reported that three men were wrongfully convicted because of Preston—all of whom together had served 50 years—and “hundreds” of other of his cases are now under judicial review.
Similar findings have been made here in Texas in cases in which local prosecutors and the Texas Attorney General’s Office have presented Keith Pikett as an “expert” witness. One of Pikett’s first big cases came shortly after he started working for the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department. The case involved a defendant named Marcus Cotton. TIP reported that Pikett testified at Cotton’s first trial, lying about his “expert” credentials. He told the jury he had a “Bachelor of Science in Chemistry” degree from Syracuse University and a “Master’s Degree in Chemistry” from the University of Houston. TIP pointed out that Cotton’s defense attorney did not question Pikett about these degrees and pretty much let his “expert” testimony that he had matched Cotton to the crime scene through his dog scent lineup go to the jury unchallenged.
While Marcus Cotton eventually received a new trial, his case launched the “dog handler” career of Keith Pikett. He became a full time law enforcement officer and acquired two new dogs—“Clue” and “James Bond”—to assist in his “expert” field. TIP said Pikett “traveled across the State” as the demand for his dog scent services increased among prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Although he told juries he did not keep “detailed records” on his dogs, he testified Clue had been wrong only once in 1659 lineups, James Bond had been wrong only once in 2266 lineups, and a third dog named “Quincy” had been wrong just three times in 2831 lineups.
Based on studies conducted by the Dutch police who are international leaders in the use of “police dogs” and other similarly respected experts, TIP concluded Pikett’s dog accuracy claims are “absurd” because even under the most ideal conditions police dogs “can only be right approximately 85% of the time.” These studies notwithstanding, Pikett’s officially became a “qualified expert” in 2002 after the Houston-based 14th District Court of Appeals declared him as such in the case of Marcus Omar Winston. In that case Winston was convicted of burglary after Pikett testified that “Quincy” identified the defendant’s scent in both his house and the house Winston supposedly burglarized. Again, in the Winston case Pikett lied about his master’s degree in chemistry, saying he had obtained the degree from the University of Alabama. It was this lie that led the appeals court to conclude Pikett was an “expert” in the field of dog scents.
The fact that the court of appeals got it so wrong in the Winston case served to elevate Pikett’s “star status” among prosecutors and law enforcement throughout Texas. TIP explained:
“He [Pikett] continued to testify in trials. When confronted with the issue of his reliability and validity of scent lineups, appellate courts simply relied on the earlier decision in Winston and affirmed the defendants’ convictions. No serious scrutiny was given to Pikett’s testimony.
“He became immensely popular with prosecutors, who started using him routinely. The ability of his dogs to ‘confirm’ what they wanted to know in a case, coupled with his charm with juries, made him a fixture in criminal cases all over Texas. As late as April of this year, one prosecutor with the Attorney General’s office said of Pikett: ‘He has helped us with several cases over the past few years with great results. I’m a big fan …’ Later, reporting on a visit between an investigator and Pikett, this prosecutor exclaimed: ‘Woo-hoo! Just got word that Keith’s dogs unanimously hit on my evidence today, just as we’d hoped’ and appended a ‘smiley-face’ symbol to her message.
“Pikett also became something of a folk hero in law enforcement circles. One of his dogs was inducted into the Texas Veterinary Hall of Fame in 2002. That same year, Pikett was named ‘Officer of the Year’ by a police support group in Houston.”
But like most lies, things became to unravel for this star-studded dog handler. It began with a highly-publicized 2006 murder case in Victoria, Texas. Local law enforcement had identified one of their own, a retired police captain named Michael Buchanek, as a prime suspect in the case. They called upon Pikett and his dogs to do a scent lineup, and just as the local cops had hope, Pikett’s dogs linked Buchanek to the crime scene. The police went after Buchanek full throttle before another man confessed and pled guilty to the crime, according to TIP.
Then in August 2007 came the case involving a string of Houston burglaries. TIP reported that against the judgment of police officers working the case, two detectives wanted to use Pikett and his dogs to confirm their suspicions about a suspect they had in mind—and, of course, Pikett told the detectives exactly what they wanted to hear, whereupon they proceeded to arrest the wrong man. After the real burglar was arrested, a 24-year veteran Harris County prosecutor named Vic Wisner ordered the man Pikett had identified released from custody and sent an email warning to all Harris County prosecutors about Pikett and his dogs.
This warning notwithstanding, the Houston police department in late 2007 decided once again to use Pikett and his dogs in a triple homicide case. The police suspected two individuals, Cedric Johnson and Curvis Bickham, were involved in the crime but needed evidence to connect them to the crime scene. Once again Pikett and his dogs placed the scent of the two suspects at the crime scene just as the investigators wanted leading to the arrest of the two men for capital murder. They both were released months later after prosecutors determined they had nothing to do with the crime.
“I lost my home, I lost my business, I lost my reputation,” Curvis Bickham recently told the Houston Chronicle. “I have three little boys depending on me—ages 6, 8 and 9—and they charge me with the most heinous thing they can charge a man with.”
TIP concluded it does not know exactly how many other innocent people have been wrongfully arrested and who are still in prison because of Pikett and his dogs.
“[But] the government does,” TIP said. “It could have chosen at any time to stop using scent lineups as evidence. It could have chosen to investigate old cases in which they were used. It could have made an effort to insure that our criminal justice system worked. Instead, it has chosen to continue relying on this fraudulent technique. Police and prosecutors are still using Pikett and his scent lineups despite his record of perjury and false accusations.”
This conclusion speaks tragic volumes about total lack of regard too many law enforcement officials and prosecutors in Texas have for truth and justice. Texas leads the nation in DNA exonerations and probably has executed a significant number of innocent people as well—Clarence Todd Willingham, Rueben Cantu, Carlos De Luna, Gary Graham, to name a few. Fortunately, however, as pointed out by TIP, a number of criminal defense attorneys have stepped to the forefront to fight the junk science of dog scent lineups. A number of lawsuits have been filed against Pikett and the law enforcement agencies who sponsored him by Victoria attorney Rex Easley. TIP reported Easley has managed to a secure wealth of information that discredits Pikett and his dog scent lineup methods through real “experts” who have reviewed and evaluated the dog handler’s work. TIP provided the following summary of these experts’ conclusions:
- Robert Coote: A well-known leader in the field of scent lineups from England and the former head of an all-British canine unit, Coote made this observation after viewing Pikett’s work: “This is the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed. If it was not for the fact that it is a serious matter I could have been watching a comedy.” Coote added that “in all [my] experience working dogs, [I have] never, ever heard of or seen such an operation. It does against all the principles of tracking and training.”
- Douglas Lowry: A retired Maryland State Police officer and the current president of the National Police Bloodhound Association (NPBA), Lowry testified extensively about Pikett’s scent lineup procedures, and although Pikett has claimed in court proceedings that his scent lineup procedures were modeled after those of NPBA, Lowry pointed out that NPBA decided several years ago to do away with scent lineups because “very few bloodhound teams were found to be consistently proficient in working scent line-ups.” He elaborated by saying there are “too many variables involved with this type of scent work and unless a handler could show through documented training records that their bloodhound was working at a consistent 1005 without a miss, it would be difficult to have this scent identification method accepted by judges and the court system.” In connection with the Michael Buchanek case, Lowry said: “I do not believe or feel that either scent line-up exercise is credible or reliable,” adding that it appeared to him Pikett was cueing his dog throughout one of the lineups. Lowry concluded his damning indictment of Pikett’s work by saying: “It is my opinion that Deputy Keith A. Pikett is doing a disservice to police bloodhound teams throughout the country that are credible and reliable in their work ethics and habits. It is my belief that Deputy Pikett … intentionally misspoke concerning the capabilities and expertise of his scent discriminating bloodhounds in given situations.”
- Steven Nicely: a professional dog trainer and instructor, Nicely had this to say about Pikett: “As a professional police service dog trainer and instructor I can say with reasonable certainty that Sgt. Pikett is not acting in good-faith to avoid incorrectly identifying someone as a potential suspect … When the theory of odor and its transfer are reviewed, and then coupled with the claimed abilities of Sgt. Pikett’s dogs, Sgt. Pikett knowing the location of the targets in this line-up is the most logical conclusion or deduction … It is my opinion that Sgt. Pikett as a trainer and handler is an unprofessional charlatan … [he] is incompetent as a police service dog trainer.”
In addition to Easley’s success in discrediting Pikett in civil lawsuits, criminal defense attorneys in Fort Bend and Harris counties have been successful in barring Pikett from testifying in criminal cases. Steven Gilbert, a lawyer in Richmond, Texas and Eric Sunde, a lawyer from Houston, have been successful in keeping scent lineups out of criminal cases. TIP also reported that attorneys in Cold Spring, Texas, Shirley Baccus-Lobel and Billy Rawkind took on local prosecutors who had claimed that dog scent lineups are as “reliable as DNA” by conducting an “incisive and well-educated cross-examination of Pikett” which resulted in a jury returning a “not guilty” verdict in thirteen minutes in a case that had relied heavily upon dog scent lineup evidence.
It is our hope that these and other attorneys, in both civil and criminal cases, will continue their diligent efforts to completely discredit the junk science of dog scent lineups. These lineups, especially those employed by Pikett, fail to meet the scientific methodology recommended by the National Research Council of the National Academies for a “forensic discipline.” Earlier this year the group submitted an exhaustive report to Congress titled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward which called for comprehensive reforms in the field of forensic science. The group recommended that no forensic discipline, such as the junk science of Pikett’s dog scent lineups, be recognized as a credible science by the courts unless:
“There are two very important questions that should underlie the law’s admission of and reliance upon forensic evidence in criminal trials: (1) the extent to which a particular forensic discipline is founded on a reliable scientific methodology that gives it the capacity to accurately analyze evidence and report findings and (2) the extent to which practitioners in a particular forensic discipline rely on human interpretation that could be tainted by error, by threat of bias, or the absence of sound operational procedures and robust performance standards. These questions are significant … So it matters a great deal whether an expert is qualified to testify about forensic evidence and whether the evidence is sufficiently reliable to merit a fact finder’s reliance on the truth that it purports to support.”
This criteria makes it abundantly clear that there is no room for either the deputy or his dog in the courtroom. Dog scent lineups belong in the discredited science closet with its ancient kindred “the world is flat” discipline. We can only hope that not only will all Harris County prosecutors follow the lead of Vic Wisner by keeping Keith Pikett and his dogs out of the courtroom, but that prosecutors across the State, including the Attorney General’s office, will do the same. For any prosecutor to compare a dog scent lineup to DNA evidence is borderline ludicrous and places that prosecutor’s professional competency on the same level as deputy Pikett. We can only hope that the 14th District Court of Appeals or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will revisit the findings made in the Winston decision that dog scent evidence is a credible forensic discipline. The Winston decision stands an ugly legal stain on the entire Texas judicial system.
State v. Winston, 78 S.W.3d 522, 529 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, pet. ref’d)
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair