Criminal Justice

Super-Powered Police Dog Proves a Paltry Pooch; People It Imprisoned Exculpated

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Incredible story from Orlando, where police and prosecutors were apparently convicting people of violent crimes based almost exclusively on the "testimony" of a police dog whose handler claimed has extraordinary powers.

Last weekend, we looked at the case of Bill Dillon, the Brevard County resident imprisoned for 27 years before DNA tests set him free…

At least two other men suffered the same fate — and another shared link: a dog.

Not just any dog. A wonder dog helped convict all three men: a German shepherd named Harass II, who wowed juries with his amazing ability to place suspects at the scenes of crimes.

Harass could supposedly do things no other dog could: tracking scents months later and even across water, according to his handler, John Preston. 

Judges and juries apparently bought this crap for years. It finally came to an end when Judge Gilbert Goshorn ordered the dog to perform a basic tracking test after Preston claimed the dog had alerted to a suspect's scent at a crime scene six months after the murder. The dog failed.

So far, three people have been cleared after collectively spending more than 50 years in prison, all of whom were convicted primarily due to the dog's alerts, despite other evidence exculpating them. Florida criminal justice activists say there may be as 60 more people wrongly convicted thanks to Preston and his dog.

Yet Florida officials don't seem to care, and have no plans to proactively look for other people who may have been wrongly imprisoned.

In a statement, [Florida State's Attorney] Wolfinger's office said it didn't have a list of the cases in which Preston testified — nor even the records that would allow the office to compile such a list.

Essentially, Wolfinger contends it's up to defendants to raise questions about these decades-old cases.

"Defendants have had rights in Florida to challenge their convictions through a well established post-conviction process," the statement said.

A similar response came from Crist's office, which said: "We believe this is a judicial issue and should be handled on a case-by-case analysis through the judicial system."

A spokeswoman for the state's top cop, Attorney General Bill McCollum, simply declared the matter beyond her boss's "jurisdiction."

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  1. They actually named it Harass.

  2. Orlando, sure this would work. But in Tallahasse, where the juror::coon-dog ratio approaches 1::1, this would never fly.

    Can the dog do a bite-mark analysis?

  3. that is crazy. obviously a dog can’t smell something 6 months after it was there but I thought it was definitely possible for a dog to smell something across water, like a stream or something. they did it on mythbusters.

  4. New Professionalism.

    ’nuff said.

  5. “So far, three people have been cleared after collectively spending more than 50 years in prison…”

    If these three averaged over sixteen years each in prison, shouldn’t this dog be dead by now?

  6. Not to let the cops off the hook, but they are not the only ones responsible here. First, where the hell were the defense attorneys? It is not that hard to go get your own dog expert to testify that this was crap. Second, what the hell was the judge thinking when he let the handler testify to this? There should have been a motion in limnea and hearing on this. Literally no one, cops, DA, defense attorney, judge, and jury did their jobs. Amazing.

  7. The Federal Bureau of Investigation should be investigating these cocksuckers instead of scuttling about entrapping malcontents and fantasists.

  8. “I thought it was definitely possible for a dog to smell something across water, like a stream or something. they did it on mythbusters.”

    That is totally possible and happens all the time.

  9. what the hell was the judge thinking when he let the handler testify to this?

    What all judges think these days: “So long as we have a warm body occupying a prison cell, it doesn’t matter whether that body belongs to the actual guilty party.”

    I keep telling you people, forget about prosecutions and just convict people by lottery. Same standard of evidence, but MUCH cheaper court costs. Just keep every minority male’s name in a hat, and pick one out when a crime has been committed. E-Z.

  10. Literally no one, cops, DA, defense attorney, judge, and jury did their jobs. Amazing.

    Not really. They’re all going through the motions each day; it’s just a job, then they go home.

  11. Jurors bought it hook, line and sinker, didn’t they.

    Am I still all alone in questioning the continued use of the much ballyhooed, error ridden trial by a jury of your peers system?

  12. Decades-old cases? What is this, the world’s oldest dog?

  13. If these three averaged over sixteen years each in prison, shouldn’t this dog be dead by now?

    That is a stumper actually. Is that why this is Harass II?

  14. “that is a stumper actually. Is that why this is Harass II?”

    The dog must be dead. As a lover of all dogs and especially that bread, please blame the handler not the poor animal.

    They use names for repeated generations of dogs. Sort of like UGA, the mascot of the University of Georgia football team. I think they are on like UGA XIII or something.

  15. “Am I still all alone in questioning the continued use of the much ballyhooed, error ridden trial by a jury of your peers system?”

    Got any ideas of how to replace it? Trial by enlightened bureaucrat doesn’t sound like much of an option.

  16. Got any ideas of how to replace it? Trial by enlightened bureaucrat doesn’t sound like much of an option.

    Make prosecutors personally liable for bad prosecutions, to get rid of the perverse incentives wherein prosecutors are rewarded not for convicting the guilty party, but for convicting any warm body.

    Nothing against Radley Balko, but if this were truly a free country he would NOT be able to make an entire goddamned career out of police malfeasance and prosecutorial misbehavior. No American journalist should be able to make an entire goddamned career out of that.

  17. hey, maybe the dog was suffering from allergies the day he was given the tracking test. He should have been given another chance, and some warning, so he could study. and maybe some Nasonex.

  18. “Make prosecutors personally liable for bad prosecutions, to get rid of the perverse incentives wherein prosecutors are rewarded not for convicting the guilty party, but for convicting any warm body.”

    I agree but I still would keep the jury system. We need to get rid of sovereign immunity. If you are wrongly convicted, you should be able to sue the prosecutor who did it personally. DAs should have to carry liability insurance like a doctor. The cowboy DAs would be unable to get insurance and lose their jobs.

  19. Jurors bought it hook, line and sinker, didn’t they.

    I don’t know that you can blame the juries on this.

    The fact is that many authoritative figures were vouching for validity of this kind of “Testimony” — most juries would probably assume that if the judge is allowing this kind of testimony it’s because there is a scientific or some kind of rational basis for it.

    I agree with John here. An epic failure on the part of the professionals involved (Judge, Prosecutor and defense attorneys)

  20. I thought it was definitely possible for a dog to smell something across water, like a stream or something. they did it on mythbusters.

    A dog can pick up your scent on the other side of a stream after you’ve waded through it. I suppose a dog could pick up a scent in a stagnant body of water. Theoretically.

    But picking up a scent in running water? No way. Physically impossible.

  21. oh, and Crist and McCollum are full of faeces on this, the mealy-mouthed chickenshits.

  22. “But picking up a scent in running water? No way. Physically impossible.”

    True. It won’t pick up the scent in the water. But it can follow it up to the water on one side and pick it back up on the other side. Small bodies of water don’t really stop a good dog. But, no way do they pick up a scent six months later.

  23. I think the best way to improve juries would be to make them a bit bigger and get rid of voir dire, or at lesat curtail it somehow. If it is meant to be a jury of your peers it should be a true random cross section of the local population. If you get called for jury duty, you are on a jury unless you are bat-shit crazy or physically incapable.

  24. “Am I still all alone in questioning the continued use of the much ballyhooed, error ridden trial by a jury of your peers system?”

    Nope.

  25. First, where the hell were the defense attorneys?

    My first guess was that these poor saps had Public Defenders, John. But on second though, seeing that they got jury trials, maybe that’s not the case.

    Either way the chances that guys like this got first class representation is remote. And they don’t seem like the kind of guys that would have a spare five or ten large lying around to hire expert witnesses with.

  26. Isaac,

    You don’t have to be Jerry Spence to file a motion to suppress on a guy saying a dog sniffed out your client six months later. Further, there are some PDs who are damn good. Being a PD is no excuse for being an idiot or not caring.

  27. I’ve trained a few tracking dogs. They certainly can do amazing things, including tracking across shallow running water. As long as there is a fair about of vegetation sticking out and the track is reasonably fresh, it can be done.

    But–Dogs are used to help find the bad guy running away from the scene and locate dropped articles that still have human scent. But to provide actual trial evidence? The judge needs to be disbarred for allowing this.

  28. “The judge needs to be disbarred for allowing this.”

    And so should the defense attorney who didn’t bother to call someone like you to call shenanigans on this.

  29. Now, while this story is in the Orlando Slantinel, it should be noted that these events actually happend in Brevard County on the coast east of O-town.

    Norm Wolfinger is the State Attorney for the Brevard/Seminole circuit.

    That’s not to say that eqhally crappy things haven’t happened in Orange County where Lawson Lamar is the State Attorney. I don’t know if he’s related to Heddy (or Hedley) or not.

  30. If it is meant to be a jury of your peers it should be a true random cross section of the local population.

    Goddammit, I want a jury of my peers. Twelve attorneys, mercilessly shredding everything the prosecution says. Make that thirteen, including the one I hire.

  31. “Am I still all alone in questioning the continued use of the much ballyhooed, error ridden trial by a jury of your peers system?”

    Got any ideas of how to replace it? Trial by enlightened bureaucrat doesn’t sound like much of an option.

    I’ve half-thought out ideas. Since I’m not a typical an, I won’t try getting them enacted immediately.

    Professional jurors completely independent from the prosecution and judiciary and at least one step removed from the voters should be discussed.

    We place the lives of people in the hands of morons far too often for my tastes. This complaint is not limited to the imprisoned innocent but also applies to the exhoneration of the obviously guilty who can afford smooth attorneys. Your average Jerrey Springer fan on the jury is just too easy to reel in using legal sophistry.

  32. Heck, Lassie could do all those things and teach Timmy Algebra. Jurors watch tv and shows like CSI probably mitigate some of the b.s. by convincing jurors that evidence is everywhere and the absence of it probably indicates the alleged perp is innocent.

  33. That should read “Since I’m not a typical politician…”

    Dammit, this site should have a preview function!

  34. CSI probably mitigate some of the b.s. by convincing jurors that evidence is everywhere and the absence of it probably indicates the alleged perp is innocent.

    Of that forensic “science” is magic, and that if you babble enough smoothly worded startrekkie-isms you must be a benevolent genius who is always on the side of the angles and never wrong…

  35. Of, Or.

    What are you, some kind of authoritatian, prescriptionist language nutcase?

    Supreme linguistic authority derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!

  36. “Professional jurors completely independent from the prosecution and judiciary and at least one step removed from the voters should be discussed.”

    That is not a bad idea. But why not just leave it to the judged then? Aren’t they professionals usually one step removed from the voters? Also, you would have to amend the constitution to do that.

  37. What was that line from Let’s Go To Prison? “The most frightening words in the English language – trial by jury.” It’s stories like this and a thousand others that make me want to buy 15 acres in the boondocks, haul in a camper and put a fence around the whole thing and just not be a part of the whole mess anymore.

  38. “And then they came for the state prosecutors, and by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

  39. Aren’t they professionals usually one step removed from the voters

    Can’t most criminal defendants already choose a bench trial instead a jury trial? I have noticed that in Chicago, most LEOs choose bench trials rather then jury trials in the rare instances that an LEO is brought up on criminal charges stemming from misconduct on the job.

    The most recent one concerned some cops who beat up some other guys in a bar when one of the non-cops allegedly called a cop who was crying over the death of a relative a “pussy” for crying. There was video tape of part of the beating, and the cops waved off other officers who were called to the scene. From what I had read, the cops seemed guilty of misconduct, but the judge made a very odd “fighting words” defense of the violence and no one was punished (the judge ruled that calling the cop a pussy was “fighting words” — words that are meant as a call to arms and that the cops were justified in getting into a physical altercation because of the use of fighting words. You can read more about the case here)

    If I were a defendant I would rather have the professional jury rather than a judge. Judges are too closely aligned with the state for my tastes. I know they are supposed to be an objective referee, but in practice (especially in light of crap like what this blog post is talking about) judges seem to act like they are on the side of the authorities.

  40. Your average Jerry Springer fan on the jury is just too easy to reel in using legal sophistry.

    It’s not just the Springer fans. I was in a grad school class taught by a lawyer. He was very skillful at manipulation the emotions of the class using language. I remember one instance – he talked about a case involving the “adulteration” of apple juice using water and sugar. Then he talked about the children drinking this “adulterated” apple juice. Blah, blah. Prior to class, I’d actually heard a few people talk about how much jail time the juice people deserved.

    I got a few laughs by pointing out that the vast majority of the class had probably “adulterated” their coffee in a similar manner that morning, and that while it was false advertising for the juice company to claim “100% natural”, jail time was a bit much for adding non-harmful substances to a food product.

  41. “Judges are too closely aligned with the state for my tastes. I know they are supposed to be an objective referee, but in practice (especially in light of crap like what this blog post is talking about) judges seem to act like they are on the side of the authorities.”

    Which is exactly why we have trial by jury. Read about pre-revolutionary America and England, or for that matter any country where trial is by Tribunal or Judge. Trial by jury is another, even if imperfect, safeguard. As is trial by your peers drawn from your community, to keep the State from Jury shopping by locale.

  42. I don’t know, isn’t putting your faith into professional juries like putting your faith into professional money men. Professional money men wouldn’t screw you out of your life savings would they?

    Whom would decide the criteria necessary for being one? Would a license be necessary? Could the state revoke that licenses? If not the state, who?

    If you want a better jury pool, don’t let people have an excuse not to serve. I hear people say that only stupid people can’t get out of jury duty. If we allow that to be, or become true, we screw ourselves.

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