AUSTIN, Texas -- Tossing out the capital murder conviction of an East Texas woman, the state's highest criminal court affirmed Wednesday that dog-scent lineups -- once considered an exciting advance in crime solving -- are too scientifically unreliable to form the basis of any conviction.
Without the discredited scent lineup results, the remaining circumstantial evidence presented to Megan Winfrey's jury was too weak to establish guilt, the Court of Criminal Appeals said in a 7-2 ruling that acquitted Winfrey of capital murder and conspiracy to commit capital murder.
Winfrey, serving a life sentence, will soon be reunited with a daughter who was a toddler at the time of her 2007 arrest, defense lawyer Shirley Baccus-Lobel said.
"Sometimes justice takes a long time to achieve, but I'm happy this has a happy ending," Baccus-Lobel said. "I very much hope the authorities will now turn their attention to the people responsible for this murder. I'm sure the people who did this are resting uncomfortably today."
San Jacinto County District Attorney Richard Countiss, who urged the appeals court to preserve Winfrey's conviction, said he was unsure how to proceed on the now-unsolved 2004 murder of Murray Burr, a high school janitor who was beaten and stabbed 28 times in his home in Coldspring, about 20 miles east of Huntsville.
"I'll get with the sheriff as soon as this is final and see if there's a possibility of any further investigation. At this point I have no reason to think there will be because we have no evidence that will point to someone else," Countiss said.
Like her father and brother, Winfrey was identified as a murder suspect by bloodhounds owned and trained by Keith Pikett, a now-retired Fort Bend County deputy sheriff who claimed his dogs were nearly infallible in linking suspects to crime scenes based on the personal scent they left behind.
No physical evidence or witnesses tied the Winfreys to their neighbor's murder. In addition, forensic evidence collected from Burr's home -- DNA from blood stains, fingerprints, hair and a bloody footprint -- excluded the Winfreys.
Pikett's findings, however, played a central role in separate trials for the three family members.
Pikett testified that his dogs indicated that they smelled the Winfreys' scent on gauze pads that had been wiped on clothing Burr was wearing when he was killed. The pads were placed in unsterilized coffee cans about 10 steps apart in a field or parking lot, a lineup method Pikett said he developed in his spare time.
Megan Winfrey, 16 at the time of the murder, and her father were tried first and convicted. Her brother, the only one to aggressively attack the scientific validity of Pikett's methods at trial, was acquitted by jurors who deliberated only 13 minutes.
The elder Winfrey's murder conviction was tossed out in 2010 when the Court of Criminal appeals ruled that the scent lineups were scientifically unreliable but still could be introduced in court if corroborated by stronger evidence.
Hoping to keep Megan Winfrey's conviction intact, prosecutors argued on appeal that such supporting evidence existed in her case.
But writing for the majority, Judge Cheryl Johnson said the remaining evidence "merely raises a suspicion of (Winfrey's) guilt and is legally insufficient to support a conviction of capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt." Presiding Judge Sharon Keller dissented, writing that the sum of the circumstantial evidence was enough to establish guilt. Judge Lawrence Meyers dissented without joining Keller or filing an opinion.