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Pit bull killing: Murder charges in fatal dog attacks extremely rare

May 30, 2013|By Richard Winton and Samantha Schaefer | This post has been corrected. See note below.

Murder charges related to fatal dog maulings are extremely rare in the United States and have not been filed in Los Angeles in a long time -- if ever -- officials said.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County authorities arrested Alex Jackson, 29, at his Littlerock home and charged him with murder in connection with a pit bull attack that killed an Antelope Valley jogger.

“We believe there was evidence that he was aware the dogs were vicious and they have attacked before and he knew of the danger they posed,” Jane Robison, a district attorney’s spokeswoman.

[For the record: May 30, 2:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison as Robinson.]

The office cannot recall a similar case, she said. 

Jackson faces up to life in prison if convicted, a Los Angeles County district attorney’s spokesman said. Eight dogs -- six pit bulls and two mixed breeds -- were recovered from his home, sheriff's officials said. Four of the dogs were believed to be involved in the attack. What appeared to be blood was found on their coats and muzzles.

Since January, authorities had received at least three other reports of Jackson’s pit bulls attacking other people, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Samantha MacDonald.

Pamela Devitt, 63, was walking on May 9 when she was attacked by a pack of four pit bulls. A passerby spotted the attack, and called police.

A deputy found one of the dogs still attacking the victim when he arrived on scene. Devitt died en route to the hospital as a result of blood loss. Coroner's officials said they found 150 to 200 puncture wounds and sharp force trauma across her body.

The death prompted a wide search for a pack of roving pit bulls.

There are between 70 million and 80 million dogs in the U.S. and about 30 dog-related deaths each year, said Donald Cleary of the National Canine Research Council. 

“When it comes to murder charges, there are very, very few over decades. But increasingly dog owners whose animals attack are facing criminal prosecution,” he said.

When attacks do occur, they tend to be in outlying locations where “people live to avoid others,” Cleary said. Most dogs involved in attacks aren’t family pets, and have usually been isolated from family interaction, as seems to be the case with the Littlerock pit bulls, he said.

In 2011, nearly a quarter of the dogs involved in such incidents showed evidence of neglect and abuse, according to a National Canine Research Council Report.

But murder charges in fatal cases remain rare. In the last 15 years, Cleary said he is aware of two cases, in San Francisco and Atlanta.

An attorney whose dogs mauled her neighbor to death in San Francisco is serving 15 years to life in prison for the 2001 killing of lacrosse coach Dianne Whipple.

A jury convicted Marjorie Knoller of second-degree murder, which a judge reduced to involuntary manslaughter. He said there was not enough evidence for Knoller to know her two 100-pound Presa Canarios would kill. A judge later reinstated the jury’s verdict after an appeal.

"The defendant acted with conscious disregard for human life," Judge Charlotte Woolard said after listing some of more than 30 incidents in which Knoller's dogs bit or lunged at other people, and quoting from a veterinarian's letter warning the dogs were dangerous.

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 her husband Robert 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. Bane, the male dog, broke free and charged Whipple at her doorstep. Hera, the female dog, then escaped.

A neighbor called 911, but Whipple's pulse and breathing stopped as the paramedics arrived. A coroner said she had more than 77 bites from head to toe. The dogs were euthanized shortly after the killing.

Noel was tried with Knoller in Los Angeles 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.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

samantha.schaefer@latimes.com

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