Judge orders new trial on murder conviction in dog attack

Monday, June 17, 2002

Associated Press WriterSAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A judge threw out a second-degree murder conviction Monday against Marjorie Knoller in the 2001 dog mauling that killed a neighbor, but let stand involuntary manslaughter convictions against Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel.

Though Superior Court Judge James Warren said Knoller and Noel are "the most despised couple in this city," he said the evidence did not support a murder conviction because Knoller had no way of knowing her dogs would kill someone when she left her apartment that day.

Knoller and Noel were arrested after their two huge presa canario dogs pounced on 33-year-old college lacrosse coach Diane Whipple outside her San Francisco apartment door on Jan. 26, 2001, as she carried groceries home.

Knoller, who was with the dogs at the time of the attack, was convicted in March of second-degree murder. She also was found guilty, along with her husband, of manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed someone.

Knoller, 46, could have faced 15 years to life in prison on the murder conviction. She and Noel, 60, now face up to four years on the other convictions.

A sentencing hearing for Knoller and Noel on the involuntary manslaughter convictions began less than an hour after Warren threw out the murder conviction. The judge said he would pronounce sentence later in the day.

At the hearing, Sharon Smith, Whipple's partner, tearfully told the court that Whipple's spirit "was too big for this world."

Addressing Knoller and Noel, she noted they are lawyers and said: "This has been a game to you. It has been one big legal game. It is not a game to me."

To the judge, she said: "Frankly I am shocked that we are discussing manslaughter and not murder." She urged him to impose the maximum sentence of four years.

San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan said he was unsure whether to retry Knoller on the second-degree murder charge.

"I was surprised. I thought this went beyond manslaughter. This was a second-degree murder case. We'll try to get the maximum we can on the sentences that are left and then decide," he said.

"They should have let that murder count stand."

Warren threw out the murder conviction despite saying he did not believe much of Knoller's testimony, and that both Knoller and Noel acted terribly in the days following the attack. He said they were cavalier about Whipple's death, and even blamed the dead woman in interviews.

"Their conduct from the time that they got the dogs to the weeks after Diane Whipple's death was despicable," the judge said.

Warren said one reason he threw out the conviction was that Noel did not face a similar charge and he, in the judge's view, was more culpable than his wife.

Knoller and Noel went on the offensive almost immediately after the attack, granting numerous interviews. They hired and fired lawyers, who warned them their public comments were hurting their case.

In court papers, Knoller's attorneys argued that her trial lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, did not competently represent her; that the judge improperly allowed prosecutors to associate her with a white supremacist prison gang; and that Knoller could not legally be convicted of both murder and involuntary manslaughter.

During the trial, Ruiz's courtroom theatrics included shouting, kicking the jury box and waving her arms. She got down on all fours to re-enact what she described as Knoller's attempts to protect Whipple.

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