HOUSTON (CN) – A Texas woman spent six years in prison for a murder she did not commit based on the results of a contrived “dog-scent lineup” – a discredited technique that “epitomized the worst of junk science,” she claims in Federal Court.
Megan Winfrey sued the technique’s developer, former Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Pikett, along with San Jacinto County and three officials: former Sheriff Lacy Rogers, former Sheriff’s Deputy Lenard Johnson and current Sheriff David Clark.
Winfrey and her family initially drew suspicion when the body of neighbor Murray Burr was found in his home stabbed more than two dozen times with a slit throat.
Rogers and Johnson focused their investigation on Winfrey; her brother, Richard Jr.; and their father, Richard Sr., whose criminal history included assault and involuntary manslaughter. Richard Sr. had recently been released on parole.
At the time of Burr’s murder, Megan was a 16-year-old attending Coldspring High School, where Burr worked as the custodian. By the time she was arrested in 2007, she was 19 and a young mom.
Winfrey claims she voluntarily gave Sheriff Rogers swabs, finger prints and a scent pad to help with the investigation. But she says the former sheriff had already zeroed in on who he thought killed Burr.
“Instead of initiating a search for the perpetrator of this heinous crime, defendants Rogers and Johnson simply decided that plaintiff, her brother and her father were the offenders,” Winfrey claims in Federal Court.
She says San Jacinto officials “actively ignored all evidence to the contrary, including DNA tests performed on evidence collected at the crime scene that excluded plaintiff and her family as offenders.”
San Jacinto County investigators brought in Sheriff Deputy Keith Pikett, of Fort Bend County, to run a dog-scent lineup on the scent pad collected from Winfrey and her relatives.
Pikett had developed the technique in the early 1990s. It involved taking a scent sample from a suspect and putting it in a paint can alongside cans containing “filler” scents taken from people matching the suspect’s gender and race, according to the complaint.
Pikett then lined up the paint cans and instructed his two bloodhounds to sniff them “to see if there was a ‘match'” between one of the scent pads and a sample collected from a crime scene,” Winfrey claims.
The dogs purportedly confirmed Winfrey’s scent on Burr’s clothing.
Winfrey says Pikett could see which can contained the suspect’s scent pad and “cued his dogs by jerking on his dogs’ leashes and strategically stopping as he walked by the cans in the scent lineup.”
It’s impossible to tell from video of the lineups whether Pikett’s dogs ever “alerted” to a scent, Winfrey says.
In a ruling on Winfrey’s brother’s case, the 5th Circuit found sufficient evidence that Pikett had cued the dogs. It noted that Pikett’s methods “had come into disrepute” by 2010, the year he retired from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office.
But Pikett’s questionable techniques did not stop Rogers and Johnson from using the scent evidence, along with conflicting statements from a jailhouse snitch, to charge Megan, her brother and father with the murder, she says.
A jury acquitted Richard Jr. after just 13 minutes of deliberation. Richard Sr. was convicted of capital murder, but the conviction was later overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
The same court also overturned Megan’s conviction and acquitted her on both charges on Feb. 27, 2013.
Richard Jr. also sued the two counties and an assortment of county officers and Texas Rangers in May 2010, claiming they violated his constitutional rights.
Dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes called Richard Jr.’s incarceration “unfortunate — for lack of a better word,” but said “it was not the result of constitutional misconduct.”
The 5th Circuit in New Orleans revived some of Richard Jr.’s claims, saying Hughes failed to consider evidence about Pikett cuing his dogs, and about whether Rogers and Johnson had knowingly introduced false evidence.
Megan Winfrey’s lawsuit seeks damages for civil rights violations and malicious prosecution.
She and her brother are represented by Gayle Horn with Loevy & Loevy of Chicago.
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