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Defense challenges reliability of bloodhounds' evidence

The reported accuracy of dogs turning up evidence in criminal investigations should be viewed with caution, a college professor who has studied canines and their abilities to pick up scents testified Thursday in a hearing over bloodhound evidence in the case against accused killer Joshua Wade.

Lawrence Myers, a professor at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, also said at the hearing that there is no national certification for human scent detection dogs and standards of certification programs in some states aren't enough.

Myers was one of several witnesses for the defense, which is challenging the admissibility of some key evidence turned up in the investigation into the slaying of Mindy Schloss.

Wade is awaiting trial in federal court on murder charges related to the 2007 killing of Schloss, his next-door neighbor.

His trial has been of particular interest to the public because he was acquitted in 2003 of killing of another woman, Della Brown. Brown's mother, Daisy Piggott, has been in the courtroom, along with a small group of Schloss' friends, throughout the current evidentiary hearing.

Wade's lawyers have challenged the use of bloodhounds that found trails to his house from Schloss' abandoned car and ATMs where her card was used after her disappearance.

The defense has repeatedly raised questions about whether the dogs could have been following the scents of other individuals on the pad. Myers said that though dogs could differentiate one scent from another, it's possible that the dog could have been following a scent other than Wade's.

Myers testimony also underscored another point made by the defense --that dog handlers might lead their dogs' behavior. Myers said he has studied the use of dogs to detect cancer in urine. The dogs were not bloodhounds and the handlers were not law enforcement. The first part of the study relied on people to follow training protocols to train their dogs to respond to cancer in urine samples. The participants, who were volunteers, reported an 85 percent success rate in detecting cancer.

When the experiments were tested more rigorously by scientists, though, observers found that though handlers thought their dogs could detect cancer, their success rate was no better than chance.

Earlier in the hearing, which has been going on for four days, law enforcement experts testified the bloodhounds used by the FBI are part of a small elite group that have near perfect success when detecting specific human scents. The dogs work from a odor that has been deposited on a cotton pad. In Wade's case, investigators took a scent sample from Schloss' car. They took the sample pad to the ATMs and the dogs found a scent trail, following it over many miles to Wade's house.

Investigators also testified they'd used dogs to rule out involvement by other people in Wade's house. They did this by taking samples of their scents to the site where Schloss' body was recovered in a wooded area in Wasilla. The FBI bloodhounds have been trained not to move when given a scent pad if the scent isn't present at a scene. At the scene, the only scent pad that got a response came from Wade. In that case, the dog made a trail from a cul-de-sac into a wooded area, ending at the spot where Schloss' body had been recovered.

Earlier, Bill Kift, one of the handlers who worked on the Wade case with his dog Lucy, testified that his dog had been certified in California with a test he'd help develop. The dog had to find a complicated human scent trail in unfamiliar territory. The trail had to be at least 24 hours old.

Myers, however, challenged that criteria for certifying a dog. He said that a dog should have to be repeatedly successful, rather than successful one time.

Kift testified that Lucy had never mistakenly identified a suspect while working a case. In FBI training scenarios, her success rate was in the 90-plus percent, he said.

The hearing is expected to conclude today, though a decision on the evidence is unlikely until later.

Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591.

By JULIA O'MALLEY jomalley@adn.com