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Psychologist Sidney J. Merin, who often testified in high-profile trials, dies at 85

TAMPA — Mary Stiles had been systematically terrorized by her claw-handed husband, Grady "Lobster Boy" Stiles, prompting her to pay a neighbor to kill him.

Darryl Strawberry's father was an alcoholic who beat him, and that helps explain why the former slugger deserved another chance after yet another cocaine binge.

Harry Lee Davis Jr., a teenager who shot his father and stepmother in Lake Wales, had "battered-child syndrome."

So said Sidney Merin, a clinical and forensic psychologist who had examined thousands of criminal suspects — including serial killers like Danny Rolling, Oscar Ray Bolin and Aileen Wuor­nos.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers called him hundreds of times to the stand, where he walked jurors through the minds of rapists and serial killers with captivating clarity.

Many lawyers admired his skill, though some derided him for it. In courthouse coffee shops and law offices on both sides of Tampa Bay, an insulting nickname trailed him: "Sid the Squid."

Defense lawyer Patrick Doherty flung the name at him during cross-examination in a 1989 murder trial, in which Dr. Merin testified for the state.

"They (squid) shoot inky substances into the water to confuse the enemy," Doherty said then.

Dr. Merin deflected such barbs, usually replying that he was paid only for his time, not his testimony. He went home and picked up a history book, or sometimes a hammer or a screwdriver to fix something that had nagged at him. As one of the first psychologists to set up a private practice in Tampa and one of a handful of forensic psychologists available as expert witnesses, he was content and satisfied, his family said.

Dr. Merin — whose eloquence and expertise helped steer hundreds of accused rapists and murderers toward freedom, prison or execution — died Dec. 31 of congestive heart failure. He was 85.

"He was a titan in the courtroom and a very fine, competent, capable guy," said Dr. Walter Afield, a forensic psychiatrist who once hired Dr. Merin at the University of South Florida.

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, a former defense lawyer, said he knew Dr. Merin, a South Tampa neighbor, for 35 years. Merin had testified "both for and against me," Ober said.

"He was always professional. He'll be missed at the courthouse," Ober said. "He was a nice man."

Said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger: "He made a very good witness for whichever side he testified for."

Tampa lawyer Rick Terrana found Dr. Merin's expertise useful, if not always predictable.

"I never figured out where 'the Squid' came from," Terrana said. "I always used to call him that, but if you asked me why I couldn't tell you."

Dr. Merin was no pushover, several lawyers contacted for this story said.

"I had him one time — it was a death penalty case," Terrana said. "We thought our client was truly out of his mind. Merin comes back and says, 'I can't help you. Your guy's a sociopath.' "

When he did testify, jurors listened. "He had a way of presenting things that wasn't boring," said Lyann Goudie, a former prosecutor now in private practice. "He could be animated, and he usually did a pretty good job of explaining what it was he thought the condition of our client was."

Like a spelunking tour guide, he took jurors through caverns of the mind. He explained the cravings of a cross-dressing rapist; the workaday indifference of Bobby Joe Long, who killed 10 women as if it were his job; and a sense of trapped hopelessness that kept Mary Stiles with her husband despite his beatings and threats.

His docket of cases reads like a who's who of Florida's bizarre and tragic modern history of murder and mayhem.

Though his work sent some defendants to mental hospitals instead of prison, he gave no quarter to serial killers such as Long, whom he called a "vile, despicable, depraved individual." Or Rolling, who killed five University of Florida students in 1990.

"Danny Rolling knew the rules of society, the legal, social and moral rules," Dr. Merin testified during the sentencing phase of the Gainesville killer's trial. "He also knew how to break them."

Sidney Merin was born in Altoona, Pa., in 1927. He served in the Army during World War II, returning to earn a doctorate at Penn State University. He and his wife, the former Arlene Merrow, moved the family to Sarasota in 1952. They moved again to St. Petersburg, then to Tampa about 1956. As his practice grew, Dr. Merin set up a reading center near his practice for children with learning disabilities. He studied with neuropsychology pioneer Ralph Reitan, grew equally interested in forensics and served as president of the Florida Psychological Association.

His services as a forensic psychologist were soon in demand by prosecutors and defense lawyers. He shared an office with his son, psychologist Jeffrey Merin. A daughter, hospice counselor Cheryl Barr, said Dr. Merin's ethics, kindness and gentle sense of humor inspired her to become a mental health professional.

"The key is being truthful," Afield said. "Not many people can do that, and Sid certainly did during his career."

He had this to say about name-calling critics: "Whoever's ox is being gored, they blame you."

Researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

>>Biography

Sidney J. Merin

Born: Jan. 22, 1927

Died: Dec. 31, 2012

Survivors: wife, Arlene; daughters, Cheryl Barr, Debra Merin and Michele Smith; son, Jeffrey Merin; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Psychologist Sidney J. Merin, who often testified in high-profile trials, dies at 85 01/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 10:58pm]
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