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Defense Asks for New Trial in Fatal Dog Mauling Case

June 08, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers for a couple convicted in the dog-mauling death of their neighbor pleaded with a judge Friday to grant their clients a new trial rather than sentence them to state prison.

After nearly three hours of arguments, Superior Court Judge James Warren agreed to consider the request before ruling. He postponed the couple's sentencing hearing to June 17.

"This is a case of first impression in California," said Warren, who presided over the trial. "There's never been another one like it. I'm not going to rush it."

Marjorie Knoller, 46, became the first California dog owner convicted of murder in a mauling case when a Los Angeles jury returned a guilty verdict in March.

She faces a sentence of 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder, while her husband, Robert Noel, 60, faces four years in prison for his conviction on involuntary manslaughter.

Knoller and Noel, both attorneys, also were convicted of keeping a vicious dog that killed.

Knoller was returning from a trip to the grocery store with the couple's two massive Presa Canarios, Bane and Hera, when they attacked 33-year-old lacrosse coach Diane Whipple in the hallway outside her upscale apartment on Jan. 26, 2001.

The dogs, each weighing more than 100 pounds, charged at Whipple as she was entering her apartment.

During the five-week trial, which took place in Los Angeles because of intense publicity here, Knoller testified that she tried to stop the attack by throwing herself between Whipple and the dogs. Prosecutors said her account was untrue. Noel was not present during the mauling.

Knoller and Noel, wearing orange jail jumpsuits, sat silently in the San Francisco courtroom as they listened to their attorneys' arguments.

Defense attorney Dennis Riordan, who has replaced Knoller's outspoken trial attorney Nedra Ruiz, asked the judge to toss out Knoller's murder conviction, saying there was no evidence that the dogs were likely to kill anyone.

Riordan argued that Knoller could not have known her dogs were lethal because there had not been a previous fatal mauling involving a Presa Canario.

"Until a Presa Canario has killed and we know about it, no one can be convicted of murder," he said.

Prosecutors countered that such an argument was absurd, since trial testimony showed that Knoller had seen her dogs lunge, bite or snap at people 34 times before Whipple was killed.

Deputy Dist. Atty. James Hammer said Knoller also knew the dogs were vicious because she had been amply warned by a letter from a veterinarian and through a book the couple had that referred to Presa Canarios as "time bombs."

Hammer said no one should have to be killed before dog owners are put on notice that they can be convicted of murder for a fatal mauling.

"It's a frightening world that Mr. Riordan would create," he said.

Riordan and Noel's attorney, Bruce Hotchkiss, also argued that evidence about the defendants' connection to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang prejudiced the jury.

A prison gang expert testified that Knoller and Noel were associates of the gang and were helping two inmates--including one they adopted--run an attack dog breeding ring.

"The impact of the evidence was extraordinarily prejudicial," said attorney Dylan Schaffer, who also represented Knoller in court Friday.

Hammer maintained that the gang evidence, which had been limited by the judge, was relevant to the case.

In addition, Riordan contended that the judge deprived Knoller of legal representation by ordering Ruiz to remain silent near the end of closing arguments.

After Friday's hearing, Whipple's partner, Sharon Smith, said that although she respected the judge's decision to carefully consider the motion, it was very difficult to have the sentencing postponed.

"It's very important for me to get this behind me," she said, surrounded by friends and family.

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