Dog-mauling trial promises drama
california begins prosecution today in case of couple and their killer pets

    
By DOUG SAUNDERS

Tuesday, February 19, 2002  Globe and Mail Print Edition, Page A14


LOS ANGELES -- Even in the lurid world of California justice, a high-profile trial opening today offers a bizarre collection of elements: a gruesome slaying, feuding lawyers, a neo-Nazi convict, allegations of kinky sex. And to make it a truly front-page sensation, the key exhibits will be a pair of dogs.

So controversial is the trial of lawyers Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel that it is taking place in Los Angeles, 600 kilometres from the defendants' home in San Francisco. Lawyers successfully argued that it would be impossible to find an impartial jury in the Bay area because of last year's media coverage.

It was in San Francisco that Bane and Hera, two vicious Presa Canario dogs owned by the married defendants, attacked Diane Whipple, a diminutive 33-year-old lacrosse coach, as she tried to enter her neighbouring apartment in January of 2001. She was torn and dragged to death in the hallway by the dogs, each of which weighed more than she did.

Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel have argued that not only do they have no responsibility for the dogs' actions, but that Ms. Whipple, whom they have called a "timorous little mousey blonde," was responsible for her own death because of her scent.

If the prosecutors are successful, Ms. Knoller may be the first American to be convicted of murder for the actions of a pet. The San Francisco district attorneys will attempt to persuade the jury that the death was second-degree murder -- that Ms. Knoller was not merely careless with her dangerous pets, but that she actually trained the dogs to kill her neighbour. Mr. Noel, who was not present during the attack, faces a manslaughter charge, as does his wife.

Another precedent could be set by Ms. Whipple's partner, Sharon Smith, who has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the defendants. Last year, she successfully argued that it was unconstitutional to exclude same-sex couples from such lawsuits.

Ms. Knoller, 46, and Mr. Noel, 60, ran a law firm that specialized in the defence of prison guards and inmates.

One of their regular clients was Paul (Cornfed) Schneider, a convict serving a life sentence without parole at Pelican Bay State Prison for attempted murder and aggravated assault.

The couple legally adopted Mr. Schneider, 39, as an adult child. He was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-supremacist prison gang, and he ran a dog-breeding ring from the prison, controlling the raising and marketing of "war dogs" outside the penitentiary walls.

Bane and Hera, two of the more deadly products of Mr. Schneider's breeding ring, were first bought by a woman who quickly realized that she could not control them. Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel took the animals in as a favour to their adopted son.

The judge has ordered lawyers not to mention the couple's sex life unless relevance to the case can be shown. Photographs of sexual encounters between Ms. Knoller and one of the dogs were allegedly found in Mr. Schneider's jail cell.

Evidence that will be allowed includes testimony from as many as 10 neighbours who say they were attacked or lunged at by the dogs, as well as correspondence between the couple and Mr. Schneider, in which they allegedly take pleasure in the attacks.

Jurors will also read an 18-page letter in which Mr. Noel tells San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan that the attack on Ms. Whipple may have been triggered by her scent. This led the prosecutor to treat the case as a crime, saying the dogs seem to have been trained to kill certain people.

One of the dogs, Bane, was put to death the day of the killing. Hera was killed last month after a court battle over her fate.

The trial could prove even uglier than anticipated, because the two defendants, Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel, have had an angry falling-out since Ms. Whipple's death. They unsuccessfully argued that they should be tried separately.