Woman convicted of murder, manslaughter in dog-mauling case

Thursday, March 21, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A woman whose two huge dogs mauled a neighbor 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 the death of 33-year-old Diane Whipple. She looked stricken upon hearing the verdict, taking several deep breaths.

Her 60-year-old husband, Robert Noel, showed no reaction. Both were also convicted of involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed someone.

The sentencing date was not immediately announced.

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 terrorized by the dogs, Bane and Hera.

The defense contended that Knoller and Noel could not have known their animals would kill, and that Knoller tried to save Whipple by throwing herself between her neighbor and the enraged Bane. They also disputed the witnesses' accounts of being menaced by the dogs.

The jury reached decisions on four of the counts Wednesday afternoon, but the verdicts were sealed until the final charge was settled Thursday. In all, the jury deliberated for about 11 1/2 hours.

The gruesome case was a sensation in San Francisco: 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 dogs known for its ferocity.

Soon word spread that the owners were lawyers who specialized 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 Canarios for use as guard dogs.

The couple acquired the dogs from a farm in 2000 after Schneider complained the animals were being turned into "wusses" there. The dogs' former caretaker later testified she had warned Knoller that Hera was so dangerous it "should have been shot."

After the attack on Jan. 26, 2001, Knoller and Noel defiantly blamed the victim. Noel suggested Whipple may have attracted the dogs' attention with her perfume or even steroids.

"It's not my fault," 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 traumatized 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 Whipple's lesbian partner, Sharon Smith, claimed the same right 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 Knoller and Noel practiced 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 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 the 120-pound Bane delivered the fatal wounds. They could not say for certain whether the other dog took part in the attack. Both dogs were later destroyed.

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 favor with the homosexual and gay folks."

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, Noel wrote about an incident in which Whipple was frightened by the dogs as she entered the building's elevator.

In the letter, Noel referred to 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.

"Neighbors be damned," he wrote. "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move."

The second-degree murder charge against 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 U.S. dog mauling cases.

Sabine Davidson of Milford, Kan., was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 after her three Rottweilers killed an 11-year-old boy and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Jeffrey Mann of Cleveland was sentenced to 15 years to life in 1993 after he knocked his wife unconscious and ordered his pit bull to attack her.

Two years ago, James Chiavetta of San Bernardino County was charged with second-degree murder but convicted instead of involuntary manslaughter after his pit bull mix killed a 10-year-old boy. He had left the dog unleashed in the yard with an open gate while he napped.

He was sentenced to four years in prison.

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