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Dog mauling was murder, jury says, but!
POSTED AT 1:36 AM EST Friday, March 22
By DOUG SAUNDERS From Friday's Globe and Mail
A file photo of Hera, one of the two dogs that killed Diane Whipple, at the San Francisco Animal Control after the attack. Kept alive for trial purposes, she was killed two months ago. Photo: Justin Sullivan/AP
Los Angeles — Dog owners across North America got a legal warning Thursday when a California jury imposed a dramatic guilty verdict of second-degree murder for a human death caused by a couple's pets.
The decision marks the first murder-by-dog verdict in California, and certainly the most public use of this new legal reasoning in North America. (There have been two other such murder verdicts in the United States, both during the 1990s.)
Legal experts expect a wave of dog-related murder cases in the near future, including one that was initiated Thursday, when a Wisconsin couple was charged with murder after their six rotweilers killed a 10-year-old neighbourhood girl while they were away.
Bane and Hera, Canary Island fighting dogs owned by lawyer Marjorie Knoller and her husband, ripped schoolteacher and coach Diane Whipple apart and tore out her larynx in a 10-minute attack as she tried to enter her San Francisco apartment last January.
Prosecutors did not show that Ms. Knoller, 46, deliberately set the dog on her neighbour or that it had been trained to kill Ms. Whipple. But the jury considered it adequate proof of second-degree murder that Ms. Knoller and her husband, fellow-lawyer Robert Noel, 60, had knowingly raised a deadly dog (Bane, the larger of the two, was the main attacker) and that Ms. Knoller did little when it lunged at Ms. Whipple.
Ms. Knoller, a small, stern woman, gasped and grimaced when the verdict was announced Thursday. The large, mustachioed Mr. Noel remained stone-faced.
Under U.S. law, and in some instances in Canada, people can be convicted of murder if they knowingly use a device or engage in a practice that can cause death, even if they do not intend to kill someone. Drunk-driving is one example.
This principle may now be applied more often with deadly dog breeds, which are increasingly popular in North America but have been outlawed in some European countries.
The highly publicized trial has already had a dramatic effect on dog-related laws, especially in California. In San Francisco, where dogs are so beloved by the public that they often seem to be treated as humans, city officials began enforcing leash laws and finally considered a muzzle law for the first time.
And the verdict is likely to have wider implications. The victim's mother and her long-time partner have filed a lawsuit against the landlord and property manager of the apartment building where Ms. Whipple lived. If successful, it could force landlords and municipal authorities to pay more attention to the threat posed by allowing tenants to keep potentially deadly breeds.
"Where a landlord must have known that the tenants are threatened by a dangerous dog in the building, the landlord may be liable for allowing the tenants to be in danger," said Ronald Rouda, lawyer for Ms. Whipple's mother, Penny Whipple-Kelly.
Mr. Noel was convicted of manslaughter Thursday as was his wife — he was out of town at the time of the attack and so had not been charged with murder. Ms. Knoller faces 15 years to life in prison for the murder conviction, and the two each face up to four years for manslaughter and three for owning a mischievous animal. They will be sentenced in San Francisco, sometime in the next few weeks. The main trial was moved to Los Angeles because of the case's notoriety in San Francisco.
While the couple argued in court that they had no idea of the deadly potential of their dogs, their fate was sealed by a sequence of letters in which they expressed scorn for their neighbours.
"Neighbors be damned," Mr. Noel wrote after the attack, bemoaning the death of Bane. (Bane was put down immediately after the killing and Hera has since been destroyed.) "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move." He expressed no sympathy for Ms. Whipple, who weighed less than each of the dogs that attacked her.
His wife went even further, blaming Ms. Whipple, a physical-education teacher and former lacrosse star, for her own death.
"It's not my fault," Ms. Knoller said in a television interview that was played for the jury. "Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."
Most of the letters were written to Paul (Cornfed) Schneider, an inmate serving a life sentence at Pelican Bay State Prison, in northern California. Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel made their living representing prison guards and inmates and became so close to Mr. Schneider, 39, that they adopted him as a son.
Mr. Schneider ran a business from his prison cell breeding and selling killer dogs, including the two animals that killed Ms. Whipple.
Experts on dog-bite law expect more murder charges. Dogs kill 15 to 20 people a year in the United States, and an unknown number in Canada; the incidents have been increasing along with the popularity of fighting breeds such as pit-bull terriers and rotweilers.
"The main message from this case to dog owners is, you have to get the right dog for your household and your lifestyle, and you have to keep people safe from your dog," said Kenneth Phillips, a U.S. lawyer who specializes in such cases.
Couple guilty in dog mauling case
Los Angeles: A woman whose two huge dogs mauled a neighbour to death in a San Francisco apartment building was convicted of murder and manslaughter Thursday. Her husband was found guilty of manslaughter.
Marjorie Knoller, 46, could get 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder conviction in last year's death of 33-year-old Diane Whipple. She looked stricken upon hearing the verdict, taking several deep breaths and appearing to hold back tears.
Her 60-year-old husband, Robert Noel, showed no reaction. In addition to involuntary manslaughter, both were also convicted of having a mischevious dog that killed someone.
A large group of Ms. Whipple's friends and her domestic partner, Sharon Smith, burst into tears in the courtroom.
In all, the jury deliberated for about 11.5 hours over three days. Sentencing was set for May 10.
Murder charges are rare in dog-mauling cases, but prosecutors said the husband-and-wife lawyers knew their two powerful Presa Canarios were "time bombs". The prosecution brought in more than 30 witnesses who said they had been terrorised by the dogs, Bane and Hera.
The defence contended that Ms Knoller and Mr Noel could not have known their animals would kill, and that Ms Knoller tried to save Ms. Whipple by throwing herself between her neighbour and the enraged Bane. They also disputed the witnesses' accounts of being menaced by the dogs.
The gruesome case was a sensation in San Francisco: Ms Whipple, a successful member of the city's gay community, was savagely killed outside her door in exclusive Pacific Heights, her throat ripped open by an exotic breed of dog known its ferocity.
Soon word spread that the owners were lawyers who specialised in lawsuits on behalf of inmates. They were also in the process of adopting an inmate, white-supremacist gang member Paul Schneider, who officials said was trying to run a business raising Presa Canorios for use as guard dogs.
The couple acquired the dogs from a farm in 2000 after Mr Schneider complained the animals were being turned into "wusses" there. The dogs' former caretaker later testified she had warned Ms Knoller that Hera was so dangerous it "should have been shot".
After the attack on January 26 2001, the couple defiantly blamed the victim. Mr Noel, who wasn't present during the attack, suggested Ms Whipple may have attracted the dogs' attention with her perfume or even steroids.
"It's not my fault," Ms Knoller said in a TV interview that was played for the jury. "Ms Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."
In closing arguments, the prosecutor called her tone "cold as ice."
The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of concern that overwhelming publicity would prevent a fair trial in San Francisco. The attack so traumatised the pet-friendly city that police tightened enforcement of leash laws and city officials briefly considered a muzzle law.
The case made legal history even before the trial began when Ms Whipple's partner claimed the same rights as a spouse to sue for damages. The legislature enacted a law to allow such lawsuits by gay partners.
Pretrial hearings were explosive, with the prosecutor alleging at one point that Ms Knoller and Mr Noel practised bestiality with their dogs. Evidence relating to that claim was barred from the trial by the judge, along with most evidence about the Aryan Brotherhood.
The trial itself was grim: The jurors were shown 77 bloody photos of Ms Whipple's wounds, many of them blown up to wall size on a movie screen. The prosecutors said the 110-pound college lacrosse coach had been bitten everywhere except the top of her head and the soles of her feet.
Experts said Bane, who weighed slightly more than Ms Whipple, delivered the fatal wounds and prosecutors said Hera tore at Ms Whipple's clothing during the attack. Both dogs were later destroyed.
Ms Knoller testified for three days, crying, shouting and insisting she never suspected her beloved dogs could be killers.
"I saw a pet who had been loving, docile, friendly, good toward people, turn into a crazed, wild animal," she sobbed, referring to Bane.
Her lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, contributed to the courtroom drama by crawling on the floor, kicking the jury box and crying, during her opening statement. In closing arguments, she accused prosecutors of trying to "curry favour with the homosexual and gay folks."
Mr Noel did not testify and contended through his lawyer that he had no warning the dogs would kill. But his letters to the couple's adopted son were read to the jury. Two weeks before the attack, Mr Noel wrote about an incident in which Ms Whipple was frightened by the dogs as she entered the building's elevator.
In the letter, Mr Noel referred to Ms Whipple as a "timorous, little, mousy blond."
After the attack, he wrote another letter, bemoaning the death of Bane and vowing to fight for the life of Hera.
"Neighbours be damned," he wrote. "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move."
The second-degree murder charge against Ms Knoller was unusual, since there had never been a conviction on that charge in a dog-mauling case in California. In fact, murder appears to have been proven only twice in US dog-mauling cases.
Judge tosses murder verdict in U.S. dog maul case
POSTED AT 5:00 PM EDT Monday, June 17
Reuters News Agency
San Francisco — A California judge Monday threw out the second degree murder conviction of a San Francisco woman whose attack dogs mauled a young neighbor to death last year, saying it was not certain the defendant knew the animal would explode in murderous fury that day.
But Superior Court Judge James Warren upheld involuntary manslaughter convictions against Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel as he granted a defence motion for a new trial on Ms. Knoller's murder charge.
Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel were scheduled to be sentenced on the manslaughter convictions Monday, and could face up to four years in prison. Shocked prosecutors said they were uncertain whether they would refile the murder charges.
Ms. Knoller, 46, and her husband and law partner Noel, 60, were convicted by a Los Angeles jury in March of causing the death of 33-year-old Diane Whipple after their two massive Presa Canario dogs attacked and savaged her in the hallway of the San Francisco apartment building they shared.
The two dogs, each of which weighed more than Ms. Whipple and had a long history of menacing neighbors in the upscale apartment house, were euthanized after the attack.
Ms. Knoller, who lost control of the dogs, was found guilty of second-degree murder, the first person in California ever convicted of murder for a death caused by a dog. She had faced a possible sentence of 15 years to life in state prison on the murder charge.
Mr. Noel, who was not in San Francisco when Ms. Whipple was killed, was found guilty of manslaughter and owning a mischievous animal.
The gory dog mauling trial, which was moved to Los Angeles after extensive publicity in San Francisco, also set a number of legal precedents and spurred California to change its law to allow surviving members of gay couples such as Ms. Whipple's partner, Sharon Smith, to file wrongful death claims.
Ms. Smith, who was joined by many of Whipple's friends and relatives in the courtroom, was visibly shaken by the decision and slammed the couple for never apologizing for her partner's death.
"You were too busy being lawyers to be human. Of course this goes beyond saying 'I'm sorry.' It's about accepting responsibility, and you failed. You failed to accept that your actions killed a person," Ms. Smith, close to tears, said in court Monday.
Judge Warren acknowledged Monday that Mr. Noel and Ms. Knoller had become "the most despised couple in the city" for their apparent lack of contrition after the attack, which shocked San Francisco and spurred a national debate over the culpability of people who keep dangerous dogs.
But he ruled there was not enough evidence to support the murder charge, which required that Ms. Knoller knew her dog had a high probability of killing someone on the morning of Jan. 26, 2001, when Ms. Whipple was mauled to death.
Before making his decision the judge added he did not believe most of Ms. Knoller's testimony and speculated that if either had ever expressed any remorse, murder charges never would have been filed.
"I don't believe there is anybody in San Francisco who would not like to see Ms. Knoller go to prison," the judge said. "There was no remorse, there were only excuses and blame."
After making his decision, the judge called a recess to allow attorneys on both sides to digest the ruling and prepare for an afternoon sentencing hearing.
Defence lawyers said they would wait until later in the day to comment on the case, which featured bizarre revelations regarding Mr. Noel and Ms. Knoller's links to prison inmates associated with racist gangs and detailed discussion of Presa Canarios — an exceptionally ferocious breed known for their fighting ability.
San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan said his office planned to file a motion asking the judge to reinstate the murder conviction, a legal maneuver that could delay sentencing.
"We haven't given up," Mr. Hallinan told reporters after the decision. "To throw out the murder charge and let stand the manslaughter charge, what was this trial all about?"
Defence attorney Tony Tomburello said it was unusual for a judge to second-guess a jury, but said as horrific as the mauling was the more severe murder charge did not fit the crime in this case.
"The public should understand this is not a second degree murder case," Mr. Tomburello told reporters. "He [the judge] is correcting something that was wrong from the beginning."