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March 22, 2002 - Dogs' Keepers Guilty in Mauling

A jury convicted a San Francisco lawyer Thursday of second-degree murder in the fatal mauling of a neighbor by two large guard dogs in her care.

Marjorie Knoller, 46, also was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous dog that killed a person. She faces 15 years to life in prison. Her husband, Robert Noel, 60, also a lawyer, was convicted of the two lesser charges and faces up to four years in prison on each count.

The victim was Diane Whipple, 33, a college lacrosse coach.

In a case that focused national attention on dog owners' responsibilities, a seven-man, five-woman jury in Los Angeles deliberated more than 11 hours over three days.

Knoller became the first Californian convicted of murder for a dog's actions. The first such conviction nationally for an unintentional death in a dog attack came in Kansas in 1997.

Knoller appeared overcome when the verdicts were read. Noel showed no emotion. Sentencing was set for May 10 in San Francisco.

Thursday's verdicts show that ''yes, you can go to jail for what you have allowed your dog to do,'' said Randy Lockwood, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. He testified for the prosecution.

Knoller had the Presa Canario dogs on leashes in the hallway of her upscale apartment building in San Francisco on Jan. 26, 2001, when the dogs dragged her toward Whipple as Whipple struggled frantically to unlock her door. Noel was not present during the attack.

The dogs, a 128-pound male and a 105-pound female, lunged at the 110-pound Whipple. A medical examiner testified that Bane, the male dog, grabbed Whipple's neck in his jaws and crushed her larynx, much as a wild animal attacks its prey. Whipple bled to death. Bane and Hera, the female dog, were destroyed.

Long before the case hit the headlines, many states had started holding dog owners responsible for violent actions by their pets. In the past 15 years, about half the states have passed laws with stiff penalties for owners of dogs that cause serious injuries or deaths.

But prosecution often is difficult unless dogs are identified as dangerous before a violent incident happens, said Los Angeles lawyer Kenneth Phillips, a national expert on dog bite law.

''When neighbors do not report dangerous dogs, you have the case of, 'How did I know this dog was dangerous?' ''said Phillips, who runs a Web site, www.dogbitelaw.com. ''The Whipple case underscores the community's obligation to report dangerous dogs to animal control authorities.''

Whipple had been bitten by one of the dogs months before her death, but she never reported the incident to authorities, he said. As a result, jurors had to determine whether Knoller knew the dogs posed a threat.

''Most dog owners would like to see things tightened up because these incidents give them a bad name,'' said Jean Donaldson, director of the Academy for Dog Trainers with the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. ''They would just as soon have the book thrown at the bad apples.''

Many recent laws were triggered by a growing number of dog-fighting rings and drug dealers who use menacing dogs to guard their operations. ''Many of the problems are being caused by irresponsible owners seeking to own dogs as weapons,'' Lockwood said.

Some communities are taking steps to close loopholes in dog laws. Tiverton, R.I., requires owners of aggressive dogs to obtain $100,000 in liability insurance. The dogs must be registered and kept enclosed at all times. Tiverton officials no longer have to wait for a dog to attack someone to declare it dangerous. Even dogs that approach in an ''aggressive or terrorizing manner'' can be found dangerous.

Most animal protection groups lobby against laws that ban specific breeds of dogs. Ohio is the only state that imposes tougher restrictions on one breed -- pit bulls. Ten states, including California, prohibit restrictions that target individual breeds.

''We're in support of laws that legislate by what the dog's actions are, not by its appearance,'' said Stephanie Robinson, communications manager for the American Kennel Club in New York, the nation's largest non-profit registry of purebred dogs. ''It's deed, not breed.''

Jurisdictions that have tried to ban pit bulls or Rottweilers have found the laws tough to enforce, experts say. Often, vicious dogs are not purebred and not covered by the ban. And the laws don't protect people from vicious attacks by dogs of other breeds.

For example, no laws specifically ban Presa Canarios, the dogs that killed Whipple. The breed originated in Spain's Canary Islands. ''It wasn't a breed on the radar screen,'' Lockwood said. ''Most people in animal control had never heard of one before.''

The Whipple case created a sensation in the San Francisco area. Extensive publicity prompted the judge to move the trial to Los Angeles. Shortly after the attack, the defendants made uncomplimentary remarks about the victim. Noel called Whipple ''a timorous little mousy blonde'' for being frightened by an earlier encounter with Bane. Knoller said Whipple was at fault for failing to retreat to her apartment.

Three days after the attack, Knoller and Noel legally adopted as their son one of the dogs' owners, Paul ''Cornfed'' Schneider, 39, who is serving a life term in a California prison. The muscular, tattooed inmate is a leader of a white-supremacist prison gang, officials said. Knoller and Noel denied allegations that they were helping Schneider and a cellmate raise and sell Presa Canarios as trained, killer fighting dogs or drug-lab guard dogs.

The four-week trial, much of it broadcast live on national television, featured gruesome testimony about the attack and an accusation by Nedra Ruiz, Knoller's attorney, that the victim's lesbian partner was exploiting the case to advance the agenda of San Francisco's gay community. In her opening argument, a tearful Ruiz got down on all fours to show the jury how she said Knoller tried to shield Whipple.

Prosecution witnesses testified about previous incidents in which the dogs menaced neighbors and passersby. Prosecutor Jim Hammer portrayed the dogs as time bombs. Knoller testified that she couldn't understand what turned Bane, her ''loving, docile, friendly'' pet, into a vicious killer.

Juror Shawn Antonio, 27, said the jurors repeatedly played a TV interview of Knoller in which she disavowed responsibility for Whipple's death. ''There was no kind of sympathy,'' he said. ''It helped us a lot.''

''There's no real joy in this but certainly some measure of justice for Diane was done today,'' said Sharon Smith, Whipple's domestic partner. ''I'm glad to see the jury didn't buy some of the smokescreens that were put in front of them.''

In all dog bite cases it is essential that measures be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the incident in question, and to enable physicians or other expert witnesses to thoroughly evaluate any injuries. If you or a loved one is a victim of a dog bite, call now at or CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT A SIMPLE CASE FORM. The initial consultation is free of charge, and if we agree to accept your case, we will work on a contingent fee basis, which means we get paid for our services only if there is a monetary award or recovery of funds. Don't delay! You may have a valid claim and be entitled to compensation for your injuries, but a lawsuit must be filed before the statute of limitations expires.

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