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Freed After Six Years, Woman Sues Cops Over Dog Scent Evidence

A Texas woman has sued investigators who used dogs to pick her out of a "scent lineup" — a widely questioned investigative technique that nonetheless put her in prison for six years before her murder conviction was overturned.

The woman, Megan Winfrey, 25, was freed in April after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld its own ruling acquitting her in the 2004 slaying of a high school custodian.

Her father, Richard Winfrey Sr., and her brother, Richard Winfrey Jr., have also been cleared in the case after trials that all used the same evidence.

In a suit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Houston (PDF), Winfrey accuses San Jacinto County, current and former sheriffs and deputies and the dog trainer of malicious prosecution and civil rights violations.

Richard Winfrey Sr., Megan, then 18, and Richard Winfrey Jr., then 19, were charged in 2007 with killing school janitor Murray Burr two years earlier in his Coldspring home.

Winfrey Sr. was convicted in 2007 and Megan Winfrey was convicted the next year.

Richard Winfrey Jr., however, was acquitted after just 13 minutes in 2009. Richard Winfrey Sr.'s conviction was overturned in 2010.

All three cases used the same evidence: the dogs — named Quincy, James Bond and Clue — smelled Burr's clothing and then smelled samples of the Winfrey's clothes.

They "alerted," indicating that their scents were on Burr's clothes, according to their trainer and handler, former Fort Bend, Texas, County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett, who is named in the suit.

Winfrey's suit calls such dog scent lineups "contrived" and "the worst of junk science."

And she has a lot of company.

In 2004, the FBI itself reported that "human scent is easily transferred from one person or object to another" and concluded: "Identifying someone's scent at a crime scene is not an indication of complicity."

And in 2005, a second FBI report found "limited scientific data" to back up dogs' use to human scents.

And in 2011, the National Institutes of Health found an "overwhelming number of incorrect alerts" in its own research trials.

Winfrey's suit doesn't specify the dollar amount of the damages she's seeking.