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Murder conviction of woman in dog attack could be reinstated

State high court orders a judge who threw out the verdict against Marjorie Knoller to reconsider it.

June 01, 2007|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court unanimously decided Thursday that a judge must reconsider whether Marjorie Knoller, who served time for a fatal dog mauling, should have a more serious murder conviction reinstated and be returned to prison.

The state high court said the trial judge who threw out the jury's second-degree murder conviction of Knoller interpreted the murder statute too narrowly. But the standard used by the appeals court that later reinstated the conviction was too expansive, the court said.

"The Court of Appeal set the bar too low ... but the trial court set the bar too high," Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court.

The decision means that Knoller, who already served 33 months for involuntary manslaughter, could return to prison to serve a 15-year-to-life sentence.

Dennis P. Riordan, who represented Knoller in her appeal, said his client found the court's decision "fair" and believes that a trial judge once again will decide that there was insufficient evidence to support a second-degree murder conviction.

But Deputy Atty. Gen. Amy Haddix said the state was optimistic that the second-degree murder conviction would be revived.

"We're very pleased with the result ... ," Haddix said. "We are pretty optimistic about our chances in Superior Court."

Knoller's conviction stemmed from the death of Diane Whipple, 33, a college lacrosse coach who was attacked while trying to enter her apartment with groceries.

Knoller's dogs, both Presa Canarios, weighed more than 100 pounds each and had threatened and bitten others in the months before the 2001 mauling.

Knoller was tried under a theory of "implied malice murder." In such a murder, the defendant does not intend to kill but acts with conscious disregard of life. One of the issues before the state high court was the degree to which a defendant must know that his or her conduct was potentially deadly.

Retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge James L. Warren said the evidence failed to prove that Knoller must have known that walking one of her dogs without a muzzle carried "a high probability" that someone would be killed.

The high court said Warren simply should have examined whether Knoller knew that she was engaging in conduct that endangered the life of another.

"It is uncertain whether the court would have granted the new trial had it used correct legal standards," Kennard wrote.

The high court also rejected the appeals court's reasoning, which held that a second-degree murder conviction could be justified if a defendant knew that his or her conduct might cause serious bodily injury.

The appeals court ruling, if it had stood, would have broadened the legal definition of second-degree murder to include many more cases, including industrial accidents.

The language the high court endorsed was that a murder may have been committed if a person "knows that his conduct endangers the life of another and ... acts with conscious disregard for life."

Thursday's decision means that Warren or a judge appointed to take his place must review the evidence and determine whether it was enough to support a murder conviction under the high court's definition. An ultimate decision on Knoller's fate is expected to take several months.

Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, both lawyers, took possession of the Presa Canarios on behalf of an adult prison inmate the couple had adopted when he was behind bars. The inmate wanted to breed the massive dogs.

Knoller and Noel eventually brought the dogs, Bane and Hera, to their Pacific Heights apartment. The prosecution presented witnesses who said the dogs terrorized and threatened people and animals in the months before Whipple's death. Whipple, the jury was told, was terrified of Knoller's dogs because one had bitten her.

Witnesses for the prosecution also said that Knoller and Noel were callous when neighbors complained and refused advice to have the dogs trained and muzzled.

On the day of the attack, Noel was not at home. Knoller said she took Bane, the male dog, to the roof.

As she and the dog were about to enter her apartment, Bane broke free and charged Whipple at her doorstep. Hera then escaped and joined Bane.

Knoller said she tried in vain to shield Whipple with her body. A neighbor who heard the commotion called 911, but Whipple's pulse and breathing stopped as the paramedics arrived.

She was revived but died shortly after reaching the hospital. A coroner said she had more than 77 bites from head to toe. Based on plaster molds of the dogs' teeth, investigators determined that the fatal bites to Whipple's neck were made by Bane.

Noel was tried with Knoller and convicted of involuntary manslaughter and ownership of a mischievous animal causing death. He served his sentence and was released to Solano County in Northern California.

Knoller moved to Florida. Both Knoller and Noel have since been barred from practicing law in California. The dogs were euthanized shortly after the killing.

In setting aside the second-degree murder conviction, Warren said he was disturbed that Noel also was not charged with murder and said this "troubling feature of the case" played a role in his decision to throw out the murder conviction.

The state high court said the charging decisions should not have influenced the judge's thinking and were justified by the circumstances.

"The immediate cause of Whipple's death was Knoller's own conscious decision to take the dog, Bane, unmuzzled throughout the apartment building, where they were likely to encounter other people, knowing that Bane was aggressive and highly dangerous and that she could not control him," Kennard wrote.

"Bringing a more serious charge against the person immediately responsible for the victim's death was a permissible exercise of prosecutorial discretion, not grounds for a new trial."

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