On August 7, 2004, the body of Murray Burr, a high school custodial worker, was found on the floor of his trailer in Coldspring, Texas. He had been stabbed 28 times. Richard Winfrey Sr., 49, and his two children, Richard Jr., 17, and Megan, 16, came under the suspicion of San Jacinto County law enforcement after a neighbor reported seeing them visit Burr’s home occasionally and because the elder Winfrey had a lengthy criminal history that included assault and involuntary manslaughter. At the time Burr was killed, the elder Winfrey had been out of prison on parole for nine days. After no physical evidence could be linked to the Winfreys, investigators called in Keith A. Pikett, a self-trained dog handler from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department, who claimed that his bloodhounds could help police link suspects to unsolved crimes through scent lineups. Pikett’s dogs smelled samples of Burr’s clothing and then smelled samples from the clothing of Richard Jr. and Megan and “alerted,” meaning, according to Pikett, that the scent profiles of the two younger Winfreys were on Burr’s clothes. No charges were brought, however, until more than two years later when the elder Winfrey was back in jail on unrelated charges. A cellmate told authorities that Winfrey had told him that some guns were taken from Burr’s home after he was killed. Police believed only someone who had committed the crime would have known about the guns. All three Winfreys were placed in a scent lineup and Pikett’s dogs—named James Bond, Quincy and Clue—alerted to all three. Richard Winfrey Sr. was the first to face trial in 2007. Based on the scent evidence, he was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in prison. Megan Winfrey went on trial next, in 2008. Along with the dog scent evidence, prosecutors presented other circumstantial evidence -- allegations that Winfrey shaved her pubic hair in order to thwart DNA testing of hair found at the crime scene, and testimony from teachers who said they had overheard her talking about Burr and his money. On October 9, 2008, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2009, when Richard Winfrey Jr. went on trial, his lawyer brought in an animal behaviorist who testified that the dogs were responding to Pikett’s cues, not because they had found a scent. The younger Winfrey was acquitted after the jury deliberated for just 13 minutes. In September 2010, Richard Winfrey Sr.’s conviction was set aside by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled that the dog scent evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict. The court ordered Winfrey Sr. acquitted and he was released in October 2010. In February 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals acquitted Megan Winfrey of the murder, ruling that, as in her father's case, the dog scent evidence did not sufficiently prove her guilt. In April 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a state petition for rehearing and Winfrey was released.
In February 2014, Megan Winfrey and her brother, Richard Jr. filed a lawsuit against the investigators who conducted the dog scent lineup. Megan Winfrey reached a settlement with Pikett for $1,000,000 in 2017. Claims against the remaining defendants were dismissed, but the lawsuit was reinstated on appeal. In 2020, a jury awarded Megan $250,000 and Richard $750,000.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.