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Half of opossum case falls

What do Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder and Dr. Zhivago have in common?

Holder and Zhivago, a 25-pound albino opossum, both made court appearances Tuesday in the unusual misdemeanor trial of controversial lawyer Manuel Machin.

Machin was charged with a cruelty to animals and discharging a firearm within city limits for shooting an opossum in April.

He said the animal had been menacing his small dog, Pepper, as well as himself and neighbors.

Machin won half his case Tuesday, when Hillsborough County Judge Daniel Perry tossed out the animal cruelty charge after hearing the state's evidence.

As the last state witness, Holder testified that he had not issued a permit allowing Machin to shoot a gun within city limits April 23.

Under cross-examination by Machin, Holder also said he never issued such permits to Gasparilla pirates, even though their annual parade involves lots of local gun shooting.

Holder also said that in some instances, such as defending people or property, firing a gun in the city is perfectly legal.

Holder, who was barely audible while testifying, said later he was losing his voice because of illness and had gotten out of bed to testify.

Asked if he resented having to testify at a trial of such limited significance, he sighed. "It's part of my job," he said. "We have to judge each case on its individual merit."

Machin says the whole case is nothing but a vindictive prosecution.

"Something more than the public interest motivates this prosecution," Machin told the judge outside the jury's presence. "I'm not being prosecuted for what I did, I'm being prosecuted for who I am."

In 1991, Machin was an undercover witness in a courthouse corruption investigation. As part of that case, he repeated allegations by another lawyer that then-Judge Harry Lee Coe III, who is now state attorney, fixed cases with a prosecutor.

Though those allegations never were proved or resulted in charges, Machin contends Coe still harbors a deep dislike for him.

Machin tried to put Coe on the witness stand Tuesday, but Judge Perry denied the request.

So Machin had to rely on animals. Mike Dockery, owner of Wildlife Capture Service and Snake Removal, told jurors that virtually all opossums carry and can transmit disease causing salmonella bacteria and that they are prone to rabies.

Dockery used Dr. Zhivago, who has lived in a cage at Dockery's house for 4{ years, and a smaller opossum, captured in the wild over the weekend, to illustrate his testimony.

When the unnamed opossum began salivating heavily, Machin asked Dockery what was dropping from the possum's mouth.

As soon as Dockery was through explaining that the animals drool heavily when agitated, Perry broke in.

"How long are you going to keep this possum out?" he asked. Before Dockery could answer, Perry said, "Let's put it away before it drops something else," eliciting gales of laughter from the courtroom.

Machin's neighbors also testified to a whole passel of possum problems. One woman told the jury, "I have possums trafficking in my backyard."