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Updated: Court Hears Challenge to Murder Conviction, Scent Lineups

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard from Megan Winfrey's lawyer and the San Jacinto County district attorney Wednesday as Winfrey challenges her conviction for a 2004 murder.

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Updated, April 18, 4:30 p.m.:

In a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hearing this morning, Megan Winfrey’s lawyer argued that when prosecutors presented dog scent lineups as “infallible, accepted scientific evidence,” they impacted the way the jury in Winfrey’s murder trial reviewed the additional, corroborating evidence.

Winfrey was convicted for the 2004 murder of Murray Burr, 51, a custodial worker at Coldspring High School, which Winfrey attended at the time of the murder. After hearing from the lawyers, the court will determine whether the evidence was legally sufficient to convict Winfrey. There is no set date for when the court could issue that decision, which could free Winfrey.

“You cannot ignore the fact that this jury was examining what precious little evidence there was related to Megan Winfrey through the lens of the dog-sniffing evidence which was presented as infallible,” said Shirley Baccus-Lobel, who is representing Winfrey.

San Jacinto County District Attorney Richard Countiss argued that while none of the pieces of evidence stood out individually, they formed a case when considered all together.

Baccus-Lobel also challenged the significance of other evidence in the original case against Winfrey, including her shaving of her pubic hair when she learned investigators had collected a hair from the crime scene and the testimony that Winfrey said Murray “was an easy lick.”

“The problem with bad science masquerading as science is it results in attaching a significance to unremarkable events,” Baccus-Lobel said.

Several members of the court asked Countiss how to contextualize Winfrey’s father’s overturned conviction and brother’s acquittal in the same case, and whether, in defending Winfrey’s conviction, they were to assume she was the sole murderer in the crime.  

“I don’t think she acted alone, I think she conspired with her father and her brother,” Countiss said.

He also said he believed “the facts of any case other than this one in evaluating the evidence is immaterial.”

Countiss acknowledged that the overturned conviction and acquittal of Winfrey’s father and brother made his job harder. “The evidence is there, I realize parts of it are weak, it was not a case I would have wanted to try, but it was tried.”

Original story:

Lawyers for an East Texas woman convicted of the 2004 murder of a high school custodial worker will argue to the state's highest criminal court on Wednesday that the 24-year-old woman should be exonerated in a case they say is based largely on unreliable evidence from a scent lineup.

Megan Winfrey is serving a life sentence plus 45 years for the murder of Murray Burr, 51, who worked at Coldspring High School, which Winfrey attended at the time of the murder. Burr’s body was found in his trailer home on Aug. 7, 2004. He was stabbed 28 times in the head, neck and face. 

Less than a month after the murder, the San Jacinto County sheriff called in Deputy Keith Pikett, a self-trained canine handler from nearby Fort Bend County. Pikett brought in his well-known bloodhounds. They sniffed the clothes Burr wore when he was murdered. Then they smelled samples from Megan Winfrey, her brother and other potential suspects. The dogs “alerted” to the smells of Megan Winfrey and her brother, indicating their scent profiles matched what was on Burr’s clothes. The dogs later alerted to their father’s scent as well.

There was no eyewitness and no physical evidence linking the Winfreys to the crime scene. Investigators tested dozens of DNA samples, but they all excluded the Winfreys.

Winfrey, her brother, Richard Winfrey Jr., and their father, Richard Winfrey Sr., were charged with conspiring to murder and rob Burr.

The senior Winfrey, the first in the case to face trial, was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned and her brother was acquitted after courts determined the dog sniffing evidence — the linchpin of the state’s case — was not sufficient to establish guilt. In her father's case in 2010, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that alone or as primary evidence, scent-discrimination lineups are insufficient support for a conviction. 

All three of the Winfreys were charged separately and represented by different legal counsel. Megan Winfrey remains in a Gatesville prison. Her lawyers, who are appealing her case to the Court of Criminal Appeals, say in legal filings that she is innocent and should be acquitted like her father and brother. Shirley Baccus-Lobel, who is representing Winfrey, refused to comment in advance of the hearing.

San Jacinto County District Attorney Richard Countiss inherited the Winfrey case when he took office in 2011. He said the evidence used to convict Megan Winfrey was stronger than the case against her father and brother because the scent lineup was used in conjunction with “her own words and conduct,” as he argued in a brief to the court.

“Certain things she said, certain things she did, all point to her being a participant in the killing,” Countiss said in a phone interview.

In his brief, Countiss points to Winfrey’s alleged statement to a boyfriend calling Burr “an easy lick.” He said Winfrey also shaved her pubic hair when she learned that law enforcement officers wanted a sample, and that she “tried to establish an alibi as soon as she knew law enforcement officers had arrested her brother.”  

“That evidence is in the record in her case, in her father’s, it’s not,” the prosecutor said in the phone interview.

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Courts Criminal justice Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals