“Eighty percent of law enforcement still doesn’t know about that link, but once you show them, they get it right away,” Thompson says. “It’s huge. The more people know about it, the more crimes we’re going to solve.”
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Merck hasn’t won everyone over, however. Her approach can be controversial, especially among more traditionally minded vets and judges and juries who aren’t as willing as she or Thompson are to make “the link.”
A danger of veterinary forensics, as critics see it, is wrongful conviction—the possibility that too much is read into an alleged abuse case, and a person gets accused of a crime they didn’t commit. This came up in 2009, in a case centered around Tyler Weinman, a high-school senior living in Florida. It was reported that Merck, a key state witness, had confirmed that Weinman was a serial cat killer, though she never personally inspected the carcasses. Weinman was vilified in national headlines, but the case fell apart when the defense produced evidence that several of the cats had most likely been killed by dogs.
Soon, Merck came under scrutiny again when she determined that a 65-year-old businessman named Armand Pacher had intercourse with his Great Dane. Pacher was arrested based on Merck’s findings, but a judge determined that Merck lacked credibility after four board-certified mammalogists questioned her analysis. She “made false statements in this report in order to exaggerate the true facts,” one of the experts, the animal-reproduction specialist Bruce Eilts, concluded. All charges against Pacher were dropped.
In response to the Weinman case, Merck argues that she was brought in too late, and that she had never personally alleged she’d found evidence of human-caused mutilation. “Since then, I have testified in the related civil case against the county and there have never been any charges against me,” she says. She also points out that, in the Pacher case, Eilts and the other experts had no formal training in veterinary CSI.
Both cases affected the credibility of the field of veterinary forensics, though forensics vets I spoke to unanimously supported Merck and maintained that even accurate forensics analysis can be eviscerated in court by a good defense lawyer. Multiple forensic-science institutes also vouched for the legitimacy of her approach. Merck herself remains staunchly defensive of the profession’s mission: “We are veterinarians who are applying medical and scientific knowledge to answer legal questions in animal cases,” she says. “As long as it is done objectively and with the proper experience and training, the testimony speaks for itself.”
Or, as she also told me: “Not every vet can cope with the dark side.”
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The case that cemented Merck’s reputation as the go-to expert on veterinary forensics came to a head last year. Wilson Longanecker Jr., the young mayor of Sorrento, Louisiana, was beloved for adopting a number of kittens—but then police discovered indecent images of children on his computer, along with other pictures that showed what had happened to the cats. When Merck established that Longanecker had tortured them after adopting them, the mayor agreed to a plea bargain. He’s now one year into a 40-year jail sentence.