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Can a dog mauling be murder?

An infamous attack six years ago may set a new legal standard. It rests on the owner's intent.

April 16, 2007|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Did Marjorie Knoller know that walking her dogs without choke chains or muzzles could mean someone would die?

The answer to that question, now before the California Supreme Court, will decide whether Knoller is returned to prison for the murder of Diane Whipple, 33, who was mauled to death six years ago by Knoller's two Presa Canarios in the hallway of her Pacific Heights apartment.

The infamous attack and subsequent trial consumed this city and sparked a nationwide debate over killer dogs.

Now the case may lead to a new standard in California for determining when an unintentional killing can be murder. At issue is the state of mind of someone whose dangerous act triggers a death: How much advance awareness must that person have of the risks?

The courts have already ruled that drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents can be culpable for murder; a change in the law could mean more murder cases against people who unintentionally kill by starting fires, causing industrial accidents, shooting guns in celebration or neglecting children.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Dog-mauling case: An article in Monday's Section A about a dog-mauling case that could change the legal definition of murder in California said one of the dogs involved in a fatal attack on a San Francisco woman arrived at owner Marjorie Knoller's home April 31, 2000. The date was April 30.

Attorney Dennis P. Riordan, who represents Knoller, believes that for the crime to have been murder, Knoller would have had to know: " 'If I go out of this apartment, there is a real chance somebody is going to die.' That has to be a conscious thought in her head."

State Deputy Atty. Gen. Amy E. Haddix contends that dozens of aggressive acts by the dogs made Knoller aware that they could be deadly and satisfied the requirements for what is called an "implied malice" murder -- when the killer has no intent to kill but acts with a conscious disregard of life and the knowledge that his conduct endangers people.

"If you anticipate that level of danger to human life, it doesn't matter that you might hope you could intervene," Haddix said.

"The risk is great enough that you are on the hook for the worst possible result."

Knoller, 51, a lawyer, was convicted of second-degree murder, but the judge threw out that conviction. Before overturning the jury's murder verdict, San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren pondered whether Knoller "subjectively knew on Jan. [26, 2001] that her conduct was such that a human being was likely to die."

Turning to Knoller in the courtroom, Warren said: "There was one time on the stand, Ms. Knoller, when I truly believed what you said. You broke down in the middle of a totally scripted answer and you actually, instead of crying, you actually got mad and you said you had no idea that this dog could do what he did and pounded the table. I believed you."

She left prison in 2004 after serving 33 months for involuntary manslaughter and is said to be living with family in Florida.

Her husband, Robert Noel, 65, also a lawyer, was not present during the attack but served time for his role in maintaining the dogs. He is believed to be residing in Solano County, about an hour's drive from San Francisco.

An appeals court reinstated Knoller's murder conviction, and she appealed to the high court. Depending on what it decides -- a ruling is expected any day -- Knoller could be returned to prison for 15 years to life. Given the difficulty of winning parole in California, Knoller could die in prison.

On the afternoon of Whipple's death, Knoller said that she had taken Bane, her 140-pound male Presa, to the roof of the apartment building and was returning to her apartment when the dog noticed Whipple.

Carrying groceries and reportedly terrified of Knoller's dogs -- one had bitten her the month before -- the college lacrosse coach was at her apartment door when the dog charged. Hera, Knoller's female Presa, slipped out Knoller's open door and followed suit.

Summoned by a neighbor peering out from a peephole, police arrived to find Whipple covered with bites from head to toe, her clothes shredded and her neck torn apart. Blood soaked the hallway carpet and streaked the walls. Pieces of Whipple's clothing and groceries littered the floor.

An officer later testified that Whipple was on her stomach in the hallway, trying to crawl to her apartment. The officer told her to remain still, that an ambulance was on the way, and Whipple seemed to relax. But her breathing and pulse stopped as paramedics arrived.

A court document described the attack as "typical of a predatory animal that mauls the neck of its prey to cut off the air supply."

Fatal dog attacks in the United States are rare. Only about two dozen people are mauled to death each year in a nation with 70 million dogs, said Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine Research Council, which tracks and investigates fatal dog attacks.

Pit bulls and Rottweilers most often top the list of killers, according to various studies, but killer canines have included a Yorkshire terrier, a dachshund, a Labrador retriever, a cocker spaniel and a collie.

Besides Knoller, only two people in the United States have been convicted of murder for killings by dogs.

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