Earl Rhoney

Orange County, California
Date of Crime:  January 20, 1994

Earl Henry Rhoney IV was convicted of the murder of 46-year-old Patricia Lea Pratt.  Pratt was beaten and strangled during a burglary at her home in the upscale Turtle Rock neighborhood of Irvine, CA.  Rhoney had committed a burglary with six other teenagers about a mile from the Pratt residence more than a week prior to the murder.  He was arrested for it two weeks after the murder.  Eight months later, police followed Rhoney with a bloodhound upon Rhoney's release from juvenile hall for the prior burglary.  Police had given the bloodhound, named Duchess, material extracted from Pratt's sweatshirt to sniff and videotaped the dog allegedly tracking the scent of Pratt's killer.  The scent material was removed from the sweatshirt using a Dustbuster type device that was called a Scent Machine.  This device was patented by the dog's handler, Larry Harris.

Although Rhoney walked in a straight line, Duchess meandered to the left of Rhoney's path.  At one point Duchess identified a woman as Pratt's killer, but Harris said the woman was smoking and her cigarette smoke confused Duchess.  Harris also testified that the wind was blowing scent all over the place, which was said to explain why Duchess meandered instead of following Rhoney's path.  Curiously, the end of the so called scent tracking was not recorded on videotape.  This was where Harris and police detective Larry Montgomery insist Duchess identified Rhoney.

Rhoney had gone to a shopping center and had seen the dog coming because it had caused some commotion as it is not often that one sees a dog in a shopping center.  Rhoney said he was about to move out of the dog handler's way when he was rushed from behind by Montgomery and told he was under arrest for the murder of Pratt.  Rhoney recalled that the dog did not really get close to him, nor did it bark, nor did it jump on him.

A good portion of Rhoney's murder trial was devoted to retrying him for the prior burglary.  Harris's testimony was basically that Duchess could do no wrong, that she could never make a mistake, and he became very defensive and argumentative when cross-examined by Rhoney's attorney.  On the day of Rhoney's sentencing, the trial judge, Judge Rackauckas, threw out the verdict, ruling the scent evidence unreliable due to evident bias by Harris, the dog's handler.

It is not clear why Rhoney had to spend another year and and a half imprisoned, as the ruling appeared to bar the use of the scent evidence at the retrial.  However, prior to the start of the retrial, the retrial judge, Judge Ryan, barred the use of the scent evidence at the retrial.  Ryan cited his belief that Pratt's sweatshirt had been contaminated during the initial investigation.  Without the use of the scent evidence, the prosecution was unable to proceed, and dropped charges against Rhoney.  Rhoney was released from custody after spending 3 1/2 years imprisoned.  [11/08]


References:  Crusader, L.A. Times, OC Weekly

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Southern California Cases, Miscellaneous Forensics