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Story pick: The weird science of dog sniffers

Texas Monthly, the award-winning magazine based in Austin, has published a story that upends our rosy perception of crime-fighting dogs. Dogs that sniff crime scenes -- and match the scents to the suspects -- might have cute names like Quincy or James Bond. But as Texas Monthly reveals in its May issue, these bloodhounds often tarnish the reputations of innocent people, putting them in jail or rendering them pariahs in their communities.

The story, by Michael Hall, recounts how the use of dogs has wrecked several criminal investigations across Texas. The reporter writes about a 2006 murder investigation in Victoria, Tex., where the local child protective services agency director was found dead, laying in a brushy field, half-naked. With no obvious clues, authorities turned to a local sheriff's deputy, Keith Pikett, whose dogs had helped track down missing children and convicts and were used by all the top law agencies: the ATF, FBI, and the Texas Rangers. "Pikett...was something of a star in law enforcement circles," according to the piece.

But, in the case of the dead woman in the field, Pikett's dogs ultimately fingered the wrong guy: Michael Buchanek, a retired 24-year veteran officer of a local sheriff's department who led the SWAT team, taught firearms courses, and, post-retirement, trained police officers in Iraq.

This story is maddening for all the right journalistic reasons: Hall lays out plenty of evidence exposing the weird science behind dog sniffers, "scent lineups," and other techniques employed by law enforcement agencies. The Lone Star state does not enjoy a triple-A rating when it comes to their forensic work: The New Yorker's David Grann wrote a chilling story in September about how Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for allegedly setting fire to his house and killing his three young daughters, even though the science behind the evidence was paper-thin. (In February, Grann won a prestigious George Polk Award for his story.)

Buchanek, fortunately, was never even charged, but his status as a mere suspect in a murder investigation transformed his life, according to Hall's piece:

“My friends turned their backs on me,” he says. “People from my church didn’t want anything to do with me. I was locked in my house, crying and praying, trying to figure out why my world fell apart. I spent my adult life defending the Constitution. As far as I’m concerned, Pikett and the others walked all over it."

By Ian Shapira  | April 29, 2010; 8:09 AM ET
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