MIAMI -- The veterinarian who helped make the failed case against a teen accused of slaughtering cats in South Miami-Dade is under scrutiny again -- this time for concluding that a retired Aventura businessman had sex with his Great Dane.
A Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday criticized prosecutors' reliance on Dr. Melinda Merck of the University of Florida, whose findings led to the July arrest of Armand Pacher on animal cruelty charges.
"She doesn't have any credibility with me right now," Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick warned a prosecutor during a pretrial hearing.
Trawick commented after he reviewed five newly filed reports from Pacher's defense experts blasting Merck's findings. The lauded forensic veterinarian was a key state witness against accused serial cat killer Tyler Weinman, 19, who was cleared by prosecutors last week.
Trawick noted that he signed the early search warrants in the Weinman case, in which Merck had to change her opinion after a defense expert reviewed the evidence.
"If you're going to rely upon her, she's going to have to come to this courtroom and testify," Trawick told prosecutor Phillip Mervis. "I will judge her credibility based upon what I see from the witness stand."
In July, authorities arrested Pacher, 65, on animal cruelty charges after Merck concluded that his dog named Christie Brinkley showed signs of sexual abuse and had apparent human sperm inside her body. Another court date is set for Dec. 14.
Pacher faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Miami-Dade prosecutors said they were still reviewing the defense expert reports but stand behind Merck's conclusion that Pacher's dog was abused.
"In the Armand Pacher case, Dr. Merck and other experts at the University of Florida animal hospital are convinced that the DNA specimen is human," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Weiner says his experts concluded that Merck exaggerated the dog's physical condition, and what appeared to be human DNA in the dog's urine sample is likely contamination such as human skin cells, not sperm.
"This so-called expert has been responsible for innocent people being accused of heinous crimes," Weiner said. "Armand Pacher's reputation has been destroyed based on no evidence. There was no crime."
Merck is director of veterinary forensic sciences for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She also co-founded a veterinary forensic science training program -- dubbed "Animal CSI" -- at UF.
Merck did not respond to repeated phone messages or e-mails. An ASPCA spokeswoman said: "Dr. Merck is unable to comment on the Armand Pacher case at this time as it is currently an open investigation."
As one of the country's most prominent forensic veterinarians, Merck helped federal prosecutors build the dog fighting case against NFL star Michael Vick, who served 18 months in prison.
Merck's name surfaced in the news last week after the highly publicized Weinman case fell apart. He was accused of mutilating and slaying 19 cats in Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay last year.
Merck, along with Miami-Dade Animal Services Director Sara Pizano, initially concluded that the cats must have been killed by a human. Merck relied on information provided by Pizano, according to prosecutors.
But a defense expert, peeling back the fur on eight preserved cat corpses, discovered bite marks that showed an animal predator -- likely a wild dog -- was to blame for the killings.
After Merck and Pizano agreed with the new findings, prosecutors dropped all charges against Weinman.
Weiner -- who wants the state to drop the Pacher case -- said his client has received death threats and hate mail. Aventura police also hauled away Pacher's computers and an assortment of dog leashes.
"The man has been destroyed," Weiner said.
Pacher is a retired, globe-trotting insurance executive who had taken Christie Brinkley, his 2 1/2-year-old Great Dane, to UF's animal medical center for eye surgery.
A vet technician asked him over the phone about the dog's health and Pacher allegedly said: "She doesn't seem to enjoy it as much when we have sex. Maybe it's because I have not been as energetic lately, and that's why she is not enjoying it as much."
Pacher insists he was joking. The tech notified superiors and Merck examined the dog.
In her report, Merck concluded that the dog had "severe vaginitis," an inflammation of the vagina caused in this case by human penetration. And a sample from Christie Brinkley's urine revealed a "sperm head" that Merck believed could only have come from a human.
Later testing revealed possible human DNA in the urine, but could not confirm it was from Pacher, or that it was sperm. Veterinarian Dr. Richard Wheeler of Colorado State University added that "there does not appear to be any indication that human sperm was positively identified."
Weiner's experts concluded that the vaginitis only a mild inflammation commonly found in female dogs. "Dr. Merck continually refers to a 'severe vaginitis,' deliberately trying to exaggerate what was really seen," wrote Dr. Bruce Eilts, an animal reproduction expert at Louisiana State University.
Eilt's report seemed to strike a chord with Judge Trawick on Wednesday.
"I've never seen an expert opine that another expert was providing false information," he told lawyers in court.
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