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Dog Sniffs Alone Won’t Support Conviction in Texas

Posted by Brian Tillman on 20 October 2010

Wow, so this decision has quietly just slipped by under the radar (or maybe I’m just foolish enough to believe it isn’t already smeared across the blogosphere).  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, not known for being defense friendly, has taken a close look at dog-sniff evidence.  Turns out they didn’t like it so much.  In a September 22, 2010 opinion, the CCA reversed the Court of Appeals and overturned a murder conviction and Richard Lynn Winfrey’s 75 year prison sentence.  The  CCA ruled that while dog-scent evidence may be admissible, it alone will not support a conviction.  Winfrey’s conviction was based almost solely on a dog-sniff lineup, and the CCA took the opportunity to research current studies and publications on the subject.  The opinion is in many respects a breath of fresh air.

In recent years, I have attended several current legal seminars having to do with the Innocence Project, forensics, current studies of witness identification, false confessions, arson investigations, etc.  It has been encouraging to note that most of these seminars are attended increasingly by law enforcement and judges.  I have seen up to four of the CCA justices at any given seminar, and some of them many times over.  It encourages me that they are effecting the change, in fact the CCA sponsors the majority of these particular seminars themselves.  Not that I agree with them on many issues, but in the larger perspective it’s a mutual goal.  Convict the right person and feel good about it, but don’t let innocent people go to prison based on faulty evidence.  In that manner the entire system gains credibility and trust, and benefits the whole of society.

On a personal note, my Lab, Gusto, has a fantastic nose.  When he was a young puppy he would sniff in the grass and dig up earthworms to eat.  I’m saying the opinion is worth a read.  There are dogs in it.

Winfrey v. Texas

If you want more of the whole dog-scent evidence bigger picture, please take a look at this 2009 report from the Innocence Project of Texas.  Enjoy.  Dog-Scent Lineups: Junk Science