Beethoven's lawyers face new fight after court rejects appeal
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000
Like another headline-grabbing case, the fate of Beethoven rests with Florida's appeals courts.
But while Vice President Al Gore fights for his political life, lawyers for Beethoven, a Great Dane, are literally fighting for the dog's life.
Beethoven has been on Pinellas County's equivalent of death row for dogs for more than five years for biting a girl who came into the garage where the dog was chained. Recently, a three-judge circuit panel denied a claim that Beethoven was not afforded due process, essentially upholding a lower court's decision to destroy the dog.
While the attorneys for Beethoven have not decided what course of action to take, an appeal seems likely.
"If there's a basis to appeal, we certainly will," said attorney Bob Merkle, whose firm has represented Beethoven's owner, Lorraine Blackwood, largely pro bono.
In September 1995 the dog landed behind bars after he bit a 4-year-old Palm Harbor girl'sface. The girl had ventured into the garage where the dog was chained. A judge ruled that Beethoven be destroyed. A string of appeals has spared Beethoven ever since.
Merkle noted that he has not yet read the order and opinion to determine if there are grounds for an appeal.
"Obviously we can't appeal if we don't have a basis," he said.
If an appeal is to be filed, that process must begin by Jan. 2, said Assistant County Attorney Christy Pemberton. She believes Merkle's firm will continue to appeal in court until the dog dies naturally. The county will not destroy the dog while the case is under appeal.
"For the dog's sake, we hope it will end," Pemberton said.
Merkle takes exception to Pemberton's characterization of their defense plan.
"The idea here is not to keep appealing until the dog dies a natural death," Merkle said. "The idea here is to free the dog."
Blackwood, who could not be reached for comment, and her attorneys have maintained that Beethoven never got a fair hearing in court.
"This was from the get-go a very odious proceeding," Merkle said.
The case went improperly to County Court without an administrative hearing, Merkle said. An appeal brought an administrative hearing, but Merkle believes that was not a fair proceeding.
"The hearing officer took it upon himself to reconfigure evidence," Merkle said. "The county has significant interest in justifying their actions."
The bottom line, Merkle said, is that the dog was chained inside its own garage. The girl "regrettably and tragically" went over to the dog and got tangled up in Beethoven's chain. Merkle believes the girl grabbed the dog's ear, causing a "reactive, instinctive bite."
"It was no attack," he said. "If that dog attacked her, she'd be dead."
Instead, he said, there was a single, reactive bite.
"The dog doesn't deserve to be put to death for that," Merkle said.
"No one's happy about what happened," Merkle said. "It's tragic."
In July, Mrs. Blackwood estimated she has spent more than $4,000 in legal fees for appeals. The actual legal costs are much higher, probably in the $100,000 range, she said, but Merkle's firm has so far not requested further payment.
Merkle said the firm took the case because he's convinced they're in the right.
"I'm certainly not charging the client right now," Merkle said. "She can't afford it."
"Obviously, there is a lot of time and effort on this case that we have not been compensated for," Merkle said.
If they ultimately win, he said, they will go after the county to pay the legal expenses.
In the years since Beethoven was first detained, Lorraine Blackwood, formerly Lorraine Sabates, married William Blackwood, a county judge. David Plante, the lead attorney handling the Beethoven case, said his firm has never had a case before Blackwood and would not take a case before him. Plante also noted his firm took the case before the two got married.
Merkle's firm isn't the only one out money.
Under the county's care, Beethoven has rung up more than $10,000 worth of fees for boarding and bloodwork, said Greg Andrews, operations manager for Animal Services. Of that, Blackwood has paid exactly $5. Taxpayers have paid the rest.
County workers walk the dog two to three times a day. They feed, groom and bathe the dog.
Beethoven is doing "as good as he can be," Andrews said. "He has been here a long time."
While Beethoven has never bitten any county workers, "he can be unpredictable," Andrews said. "He can be aggressive, yes."
Beethoven is selective in which staff members he allows to walk him, and he is always muzzled for walks.
Beethoven is now the only dog whose death warrant is under appeal.
A Rottweiler named Rock, who bit a chunk out of a teenager's calf and was on death row for 19 months, was freed in September after his owner won an appeal with a County Court judge in September.
As for the girl Beethoven bit, Julia Allen, her family has remained silent on the case for years. Pemberton said it was more than a year ago that she last spoke with Julia's mother, Leah Allen, and that Mrs. Allen reported Julia was doing better but still has scars on her face.
The Allens could not be reached for comment for this story, and Pemberton said they have told her they want to be left alone.
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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