Dog-Mauling Case Hits the Calif. High Court
March 5, 2007
The case of the widely despised San Francisco dog owner is back in the spotlight.
When San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren threw out Marjorie Knoller's second-degree murder conviction for the dog-mauling death of her neighbor Diane Whipple, the judge justified his controversial decision by explaining that Knoller did not know her conduct had a "high probability of death to another human being."
Since Warren's 2002 ruling, the 1st District Court of Appeal reversed, putting the second-degree murder conviction back on the table. The California Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on the larger debate of what constitutes implied malice, a requirement of second-degree murder.
The case of Knoller and her husband Robert Noel attracted worldwide media attention that continued long after Warren's ruling. It was, and still is, the first dog-mauling case in the state to get a murder conviction.
Among the many unique facts of the case, Knoller and Noel were keeping the two massive dogs for Paul Schneider, a life inmate and member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang who bred and sold Presa Canarios as guard dogs using people outside the prison. The couple later adopted Schneider, then 39 years old.
Days after the attack, Knoller appeared on "Good Morning America" and showed no remorse. Noel also publicly insulted San Francisco's then-DA Terence Hallinan and partly blamed Whipple for the attack.
To avoid jurors tainted by the public sentiment against Knoller and Noel in the Bay Area, the trial was moved to Los Angeles.
In the current debate before the Supreme Court, Deputy Attorney General Amy Haddix argues the murder conviction must be reinstated because the standard of conscious disregard for life includes conscious disregard of a likely risk of serious bodily injury.
Knoller's attorney, Dennis Riordan, however, argues that adopting this standard would wipe out the distinction between murder and involuntary manslaughter -- which does not require malice.
"Death and great bodily injury are most assuredly not one and the same thing," Riordan states in his reply brief.
Knoller reportedly moved to Florida after being released from prison in 2004 after serving two years. She had been sentenced to the maximum term of four years for the lesser counts of involuntary manslaughter and owning a mischievous animal that caused death. Noel, also convicted of the two lesser counts, served his prison time and was released in 2003.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the prosecution, Knoller would face the possibility of going back to prison to finish out a sentence of 15 years to life for the second-degree murder conviction.
Two years ago, the 1st District ruled the prosecution did not have to prove Knoller knew her two dogs would kill, but only that she knew taking them out of her apartment without a muzzle would endanger someone else's life.
According to Riordan's opening brief, the issue before the high court is whether substantial evidence supports the trial court's ruling that the prosecution didn't prove Knoller was aware of a high probability of death. Riordan highlights the prosecution' s lack of evidence, noting that no evidence was entered that Knoller's dogs or the Presa Canario breed had ever killed a human.
But James Hammer, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case in the trial court, said the argument requiring absolute certainty that someone will die sets a "dangerous standard."
"It suggests you get one free death," Hammer said. The more than 30 incidents where Knoller's dogs lunged at people, as well as the warning from the dogs' veterinarian that the dogs needed muzzles, should have been enough of a warning that they would kill someone, he said.
Hammer plans to attend the Tuesday hearing with Sharon Smith, Whipple's partner.
To exhibit malice, Haddix states in her brief, "a defendant never has to know the probability of the outcome ... as opposed to the nature of the potential harm."
Citing case law, Haddix offers examples where defendants have been found guilty of murder despite arguing they didn't know it would result in death: a parent who shakes his infant child and kills the baby, a drunk driver, a person who discharges a gun into the ceiling of an apartment building and kills the person in the room above.
This particular case is unique, though, because a separate being committed the murder, according to Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney Kenneth Phillips, who represents dog-bite victims throughout the country and gave regular TV commentaries of the Knoller trial. Stretching out the definition of implied malice to punish Knoller with a longer prison sentence is not the answer, he said.
"Should dog owners be exposed to murder convictions if their dogs are not trained to attack people or known to attack people?" he asked. "That's a real serious liability. There are probably millions of dog owners in California that can be exposed to a murder conviction if the California Supreme Court is going to uphold this second-degree murder conviction."
The court will also address whether Warren abused his discretion by granting Knoller a new trial on the murder charge. In addition to incorrectly defining implied malice, the trial court overstepped its bounds by accepting testimony from Knoller, an incredible witness, according to Haddix. Because Warren also said Noel was equally as culpable as Knoller and that punishment should be equal, Haddix argues that should not have been a consideration.