The following Houston Chronicle editorial was published on September 30, 2009.
We love dogs, but we have our limits. We don't think they should be allowed to vote, hold public office or provide court testimony.
The problem is, that last bit — the part about court testimony — isn't a joke. Like most other states, Texas allows its courts to use evidence from “scent lineups,” in which dogs supposedly match a suspect's scent to items found at a crime scene.
A new report by the Innocence Project of Texas shows that scent lineups don't pass the smell test. Whether accidentally or on purpose, it's easy for handlers to cue eager-to-please dogs to give whatever answer the handler wants. Experts say that rigorously trained dogs, working under perfect conditions, are right only about 85 percent of the time. And because so few dog-and-handler teams could perform the lineups successfully, the National Police Bloodhound Association no longer teaches dog handlers how to do them.
The Innocence Project proclaims scent lineups “junk science,” and in some depth, the report describes the career of dog handler Keith Pikett, a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department who's done scent lineups all over Texas.
The report tells a disturbing story. Earlier this year, based on scent matches from Pikett's dogs, a man was charged with rape and robbery in Yoakum County — but DNA evidence later cleared him. After a 2006 Pikett scent lineup, a man was named the prime suspect in a Victoria murder — but then someone else confessed to it. Yet another Pikett scent lineup following a 2007 string of Houston burglaries led to an incorrect arrest. Vic Wisner, the Harris County prosecutor in charge of that case, was so disgusted that he e-mailed other prosecutors to warn them about Pikett.
In relation to a recent lawsuit against Pikett, Bob Coote, formerly the United Kingdom's head of police-dog training, reviewed a tape of one of Pikett's scent lineups. Coote called it “the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed.”
He added: “I could have been watching a comedy.”
We wish that he had been. Dogs doing human stuff can be hilarious. (Where would YouTube be without canine skateboarding?) But in a courtroom, their evidence isn't funny at all.