In an opening statement punctuated by gruesome photos, a prosecutor said Tuesday he will prove that a couple were warned repeatedly their dogs were dangerous before a neighbor was mauled to death. But the defense called the attack unexpected.
San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Jim Hammer told jurors he would show them at least 30 instances in which the huge presa canario dogs kept by defendants Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel attacked other people, including a time one dog severed Noel's finger.
Knoller, 46, was with the dogs, Bane and Hera, at the time of the Jan. 26, 2001, attack that killed Diane Whipple outside her San Francisco apartment. Knoller is charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous animal that killed a human being. Her 60-year-old husband faces the latter two charges.
The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of extensive publicity in San Francisco.
Defense attorney Nedra Ruiz sought to counter the prosecution with an opening statement that painted a picture of unexpected behavior by the dogs and dramatic efforts by Knoller to stop the attack.
Ruiz held up her arms to show the jury how Bane initially pinned Whipple to a wall after escaping Knoller's control.
"Marjorie was very concerned," Ruiz said. "She had never been in a situation where Bane had pulled her off her feet. She had never been in a situation where both dogs were not being obedient to her. ... She wanted immediately to take emergency action to protect Ms. Whipple."
Ruiz, who got down on the floor in front of the jury to re-enact the attack, said at one point, "Marjorie then flings here body on Miss Whipple" and quoted her client as saying, "Don't move — I think he's trying to protect me."
Earlier, the prosecutor disputed the claim that Knoller tried to shield Whipple. He also sought to show a pattern of aggression by the dogs.
Hammer said Whipple was previously bitten on the hand by one of the dogs. He presented letters from witnesses including a veterinarian who warned the couple not to bring the dogs into San Francisco because they "would be a liability in any household."
Knoller and Noel, in the weeks after Whipple's death, denied they had ever been warned of dangers involving their dogs and said they had never lost control of them, he said.
Hammer quoted Noel as saying, "Bane was a wonderful mutt. ... Bane had never shown any signs of people aggression." With that, the prosecutor flashed on a screen a picture of Noel's severed finger after the attack by Bane.
The defendants sat impassively beside their lawyers as the prosecutor showed jurors gruesome photos of Whipple's injuries — the back of her neck bloodied and punctured by the dog's teeth, her buttocks and breasts also punctured, her face covered in blood.
Some jurors looked away, and Whipple's mother, Penny Whipple Kelly, had tears on her face. The victim's domestic partner, Sharon Smith, left the courtroom when the pictures appeared.
Knoller's parents sat in another row listening.
Repeatedly, the prosecutor emphasized that the issue was how much the defendants knew about the aggressiveness of their dogs and whether they did anything to control it.
He gave jurors a dramatic description of the scene in the hallway of Whipple's apartment building as she tried to enter her apartment with groceries, only to be knocked down by the 100 pounds-plus Bane.
He said a neighbor — who called 911 — will testify that she heard growling and barking, and then the dog pounded her apartment door so hard that she was afraid he would break it down.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor said, Whipple's clothes were pulled from her body and she was left naked and bloody, crawling toward her apartment. By the time police arrived, he said, Whipple was gasping, and she died "from a combination of blood loss and asphyxia."
He presented videotapes of interviews given by the defendants after the killing in which they expressed no remorse.
The prosecutor also said he would detail the relationship between the defendants and two inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison who allegedly conspired with them to raise a breed of killer dogs.
Bane was destroyed immediately after the attack. Hera was destroyed last month.
A jury of seven men and five women was seated last week.