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The Importance of Seeming Human

Maybe Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel Really Are Sorry That Their Dog Killed Their Neighbor. But 'Maybe' Wasn't Enough to Keep a Jury From Going for Murder.

June 02, 2002|STEVE BERRY

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 8, 2001, Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, got out of bed so they'd be on time for their scheduled appearance on "Good Morning America." They wanted to correct what they considered the "grotesque and negative" image they'd developed in the media since Jan. 26, when their large Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera, got away from Knoller in the hallway of their San Francisco apartment building and one of them mauled neighbor Diane Whipple to death.

In this TV interview, the importance of seeming human was never more evident. As Knoller and Noel would learn a year later, their icy performance in front of an estimated 4.7 million viewers would play a pivotal role in their fates.

The interview offered the couple an opportunity to show remorse, to extend heartfelt condolences to Whipple's loved ones and to explain how emotionally wrecked they were by thoughts that their dog Bane had killed Whipple in the most savage way imaginable. It also offered them the chance to emotionally connect with the millions of American dog owners who might empathize with two people whose pet inexplicably became a killer.

Instead, Knoller and Noel, both attorneys, "got into their fight mode," says Karen Fleming, a Sacramento jury consultant who would later help the couple select jurors. They smirked, denied, rolled their eyes, evaded and, by implication, accused Whipple of playing a role in her own mauling death. They came off as, at best, arrogant, unapologetic and seemingly unmoved by the tragedy. Perhaps the most damning exchange came when the increasingly incredulous interviewer, Elizabeth Vargas, asked Knoller, "Do you think you bear any responsibility at all for this attack?"

Knoller: "Responsibility? No, not at all."

Vargas: "Why not?. . . You were unable to control them. Why aren't you at all responsible?"

Knoller: "I wouldn't say I was unable to control them."

Vargas: "You couldn't stop the dog from attacking Diane Whipple."

Knoller: "I wouldn't say that it was an attack, and I did everything humanly possible to avoid the incident. Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. . . . She was in her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."

Knoller depicted Bane's initial charge at Whipple as "showing interest," not an aggressive act. When the 120-pound dog pinned the 110-pound Whipple against the wall and Knoller climbed on top of Whipple to protect her, she still insisted Bane was just "showing interest." Knoller said it only became an attack after Whipple struck her in the eye during the incident, provoking Bane into a protective frenzy.

Noel, his downturned mustache creating an indelible scowl, insisted that Bane and Hera were not dangerous. Asked to explain reports from dozens of people about frightening encounters with the two dogs, Noel reacted with a scoff. Knoller, who seldom made eye contact with the camera, defiantly dismissed the reports as a "total fabrication" by people wanting "their 15 minutes of fame."

Even when that videotape was played for jurors at their March trial, effectively assuring Knoller's conviction on the harshest possible charge, it still seemed unclear to Knoller why she might better have stayed in bed on that unforgettable February morning.

The "Good Morning America" interview had created enough public distaste for the couple in the Bay Area that their trial was moved to Los Angeles. Here, prosecutors introduced the ABC videotape as evidence that helped undermine the couple's credibility and crystallize their images as insincere, selfish and emotionally ignorant.

It worked. The jurors--10 of whom owned or once owned dogs, including one who said he was fond of pit bulls, Dobermans and Rottweilers--considered four weeks of testimony involving five charges against the two defendants. But despite being asked to untangle the case's confusing and nuanced legal issues, they took only 11 hours to deliberate and convict the couple on all counts. Clearly, the jurors didn't much like these people.

They convicted Knoller of not one, but two homicide counts: second-degree murder--"implied malice murder"--and involuntary manslaughter. They also convicted her of keeping a dangerous dog. Noel wasn't even present during the attack, but was found guilty of the two lesser offenses. The couple will be sentenced June 7, and San Francisco County Superior Court Judge James Warren could send Knoller away for 15 years to life. Noel faces as many as four years.

As they take the public stage again, Knoller and Noel are preceded by an image as dour and unrepentant as any comic-book villain. The public regards them with the contempt it normally reserves for the likes of Osama bin Laden or the corporate hucksters at Enron. That passionate reaction seems to affirm the theory that, at least in this case, so-called "emotional intelligence" is no less important than being genetically blessed with a high IQ.

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