Legal Briefing: Murder Conviction Based on Dog Witnesses Is Tossed

A daily look at legal news and the business of law:

Canines' Scent Testimony Thrown Out as Junk Science

In 2007, Richard Winfrey Sr. was convicted of murdering a high school janitor in Cold Spring, Texas, although no eyewitnesses put Winfrey at the scene, and fingerprints, footprints and hairs from the crime scene didn't match him. Despite all that evidence pointing away from him, Winfrey was found guilty after three apparently very compelling witnesses matched the scent of the victim's clothes to Winfrey, three years after the crime was committed. Those witnesses? Bloodhounds Quincey, James Bond and Clue. I wish I were joking.

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The three dogs sniffed the clothing the victim was wearing when he was murdered three years earlier, and then sniffed six coffee cans that had scent swabs from different individuals in them. The dogs picked Winfrey's swab from the "scent lineup," according to their owner, former Fort Bend Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett. (Pikett retired after the Innocence Project targeted him for using "junk science." He has already been sued by three people who claim he used the dogs to wrongfully convict them, reports the Associated Press.)

Although this particular story has a happy ending -- Winfrey will be freed, his name cleared, and prosecutors barred from re-trying him -- two features of the case blow my mind. First, a judge allowed this evidence in. Legally, scientific evidence must be reliable: How did the prosecution demonstrate the reliability of a scent lineup, much less a scent lineup based on sniffs three years after the crime? Second, how could a jury discount the fact that key physical evidence from the scene -- fingerprints, footprints and hairs -- didn't match Winfrey, and just take the dogs' "word" for Winfrey's guilt?

GMAC Mortgage Problem First Exposed in 2006

Bloomberg reported that a "technicality" that has jeopardized foreclosure proceedings in 23 states first surfaced in 2006 in a foreclosure case that resulted in a court sanctioning a GMAC executive over the practice. The mass signing of court filings by employees who hadn't reviewed the documents whose facts they were attesting to was supposed to stop, per an internal policy directive issued in response in 2006. Nonetheless, the people who were exposed recently as doing the mass document signings were supervised by the same executive who was sanctioned for the practice in 2006. Nice.

Bank of America Foreclosed On House It Sold in A Short Sale

As if anyone needed more proof that foreclosing banks don't have their legal houses in order, Bank of America (BAC) just foreclosed on a house it had sold in a cash short sale six months earlier, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The bank has agreed to go back to court and rescind the foreclosure, restoring the title to its rightful owner. This isn't the first time a Bank of America has foreclosed on a property that had no mortgage on it. I wrote about another one last February, and surely not every case makes the papers.

State Medical Marijuana Law No Defense to Federal Prosecution

A Colorado medical marijuana grower showed off his crop on the TV news and was promptly charged with federal drug law violations, reports the AP. In his defense, the grower cited the Obama administration memos asserting the feds wouldn't pursue federal marijuana cases in states that legalized medical marijuana. Nonetheless, the judge rejected the defense, finding the memos didn't change marijuana's illegality. The grower is facing a possible life sentence. I find it hard to believe that federal prosecutors don't have more socially useful targets for their scarce enforcement resources than a prosecuting a person complying with his state's law.

Gay Adoption Legal In California

Continuing gay rights' banner year in 2010, a Florida court has tossed out that state's ban on allowing gay people to adopt. The underlying case arose because a gay couple who were legally fostering two young siblings wanted to adopt them.

"The Prize" DA On His Way Out

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has begun the process of removing sexting DA Ken Kratz, reports the AP, and the state's attorney general criticized the Office of Lawyer Regulation for failing to discipline Kratz, adds the ABA Journal.

Grossly Overpaid California City Officials Arrested

Hooray! Eight conscience-less current and former elected officials of Bell, Calif., who had the chutzpah to pay themselves outlandish salaries on the back of abusive revenue-raising processes have been arrested for ripping off the taxpayers, or in the drier language of law, for "misappropriation of public funds." According to prosecutors cited in The New York Times,anyone in Bell in a position to blow the whistle was bought off with a "loan" of city money.

And in the Business of Law

Bloomberg reports that big UK law firms are doing a little better, seeing a 5% year over year increase in revenue for the quarter that ended July 31, but the article notes that the overall legal market is still very weak.