Murder charges thrown out due to dull-nosed police dog

A La Puente murder charge was reversed in a California court after more than 10 years of appeals because it was based largely on a scent match provided by a police dog with a history of misidentification, according to a Courthouse News Service story. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, but the investigation was fraught with confusion and poor identification. He was initially identified from a sketch based on an eyewitness description, and eyewitnesses who picked him out of a photo lineup later changed their stories at trial.

The dog’s role in the murder charge happened because the person who shot the victim several times was seen driving away in a white Volkswagen Beetle. The vehicle was impounded a few weeks following the murder, and the police dog identified the defendant’s scent in the car even though fingerprints did not match. During the murder trial, the defendant argued that another man whose brother had been shot in a rival gang war was the killer as two witnesses had seen that man in a white Beetle as well.

Despite evidence lining up that the defendant didn’t do it, a jury convicted him based on the police dog’s scent evidence. He was sentenced to 50 years to life. His attorney appealed the case when he found out that the police dog in question had a history of misidentification. In this case, the evidence that the attorney found may have helped to set the defendant free. A three-judge panel ordered that he be released or given a new trial.

It is a defense attorney’s job to find evidence that would cast doubt on prosecutors’ cases against individuals who could be innocent. This is especially important for serious charges such as first-degree murder, where a wrong conviction could have a dramatic impact on someone’s life.

Source: Courthouse News, “Shaky Police Dog Can’t Support Murder Verdict”, Tim Hull, July 29, 2013

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