LOS ANGELES – The owner of two dogs who mauled a woman to death in a San Francisco apartment building faces 15 years to life in prison after a jury convicted her of second-degree murder Thursday. Her husband was found guilty of manslaughter.
Marjorie Knoller gasped and her husband Robert Noel showed no reaction as the verdict in the death of Diane Whipple was read.
Knoller, 46, was found guilty of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed someone.
Her 60-year-old husband was charged only with the latter two counts since he wasn't home at the time of the mauling in the hall outside the couple's apartment. He also was convicted of both counts and faces up to four years if convicted.
A large group of friends of the victim and her domestic partner, Sharon Smith, burst into tears after the verdicts were read. Smith sobbed and wiped tears from her face.
"There's no real joy in this but certainly some measure of justice for Diane was done today," Smith said later, adding that she felt "some closure" with the verdicts.
"I'm glad to see the jury didn't buy some of the smokescreens that was put in front of them," Smith told reporters.
"I feel justice was done here and that was what I was hoping for," said the victim's mother, Penny Whipple-Kelly.
Sentencing was set for May 10 in San Francisco.
The case had centered on how responsible Noel and Knoller were for their animals. Murder charges are rare in dog mauling cases, but prosecutors said the two attorneys knew their two huge Presa Canarios were "time bombs." The prosecution put more than 30 witnesses on the stand who said they had been terrorized by the dogs, Bane and Hera, in the past.
The defense contended that Knoller and Noel couldn't have known their animals would kill, and that Knoller tried to save Whipple by throwing herself between her neighbor and the enraged Bane. They also pointed out that the parade of prosecution witnesses didn't come forward until long after the attack.
The jury reached decisions on four of the counts Wednesday afternoon, but the verdicts were sealed until the final charge was settled Thursday. In all, the jury deliberated for about 11 hours.
The gruesome case was a sensation in San Francisco from the outset: Whipple, a successful member of the city's gay community, was savagely killed in exclusive Pacific Heights, her throat ripped open by an exotic breed of dog known for its ferocity.
Soon word spread that the owners were lawyers who specialized in lawsuits on behalf of inmates and prison workers. They were even in the process of adopting a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate, Aryan Brotherhood member Paul Schneider, who prison officials said was trying to run a business raising Presa Canarios for use as guard dogs.
The couple acquired the dogs from a farm in 2000 after Schneider complained the animals were being turned into "wusses" there. The dogs' former caretaker later testified she had warned Knoller that Hera was so dangerous the dog "should have been shot."
Knoller's and Noel's role in their neighbor's horrific death on Jan. 26, 2001, became a subject of wide speculation. The couple quickly went public, defiantly blaming the victim.
In an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America" that was played for jurors by the prosecution, Knoller was asked about her role in the attack.
"It's not my fault," she said. "I wouldn't say I was unable to control them. I wouldn't say it was an attack. ... Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."
In closing arguments, the prosecutor called her tone "cold as ice."
The case made legal history before trial when Whipple's domestic partner, Smith, claimed the right to sue for damages as a heterosexual spouse would in such a case. The Legislature accepted her argument and enacted a law to allow such suits by same-sex partners.
Pretrial hearings were explosive, with the prosecutor alleging at one point that Knoller and Noel practiced bestiality with their dogs. Evidence relating to that claim was barred from the trial by the judge along with most evidence about the Aryan Brotherhood.
After extensive hearings, the trial was moved to Los Angeles because of concern that overwhelming publicity would prevent a fair trial in San Francisco. The attack so dominated the pet-friendly city that dog owners complained of a police crackdown on unleashed animals and city officials briefly considered a muzzle law.
The trial itself was grim: Jurors saw 77 bloody photos of Whipple's wounds, many of them blown up to wall size on a movie screen. The prosecutors said the 110-pound lacrosse coach had been bitten everywhere on her body except the top of her head and the soles of her feet.
Experts said the 120-pound Bane delivered the fatal wounds, but didn't rule out Hera as participating in the attack. Both dogs were later destroyed.
Knoller testified for three days, crying, shouting and insisting she never suspected her beloved dogs could be killers.
"I saw a pet who had been loving, docile, friendly, good toward people, turn into a crazed, wild animal," the defendant sobbed, referring to Bane. "It's still incomprehensible what he did in that hallway."
Her lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, added to the courtroom histrionics by crawling on the floor, kicking the jury box and crying during her opening statement. In closing remarks, she attacked Smith as a liar and said the prosecutor was trying to "curry favor with the homosexual and gay folks."
Noel didn't testify and contended through his lawyer that he had no warnings the dogs would kill.
But his letters to the couple's adopted son, found in his prison cell, were read to the jury. Two weeks before the attack, Noel wrote about an incident in which Whipple was frightened by the dogs while entering the elevator at their apartment building.
"As soon as the door opens at 6 one of our newer female neighbors, a timorous little mousy blond, who weighs less than Hera, is met by the dynamic duo exiting and all most (sic) has a coronary," Noel wrote. "The mutts show only passing interest as she gets in and goes down."
After Whipple's death, Noel wrote another letter bemoaning the death of Bane and vowing to fight for the life of Hera.
"Neighbors be damned," he wrote. "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move."
The second-degree murder charge against Knoller was unusual, since there had never been a conviction on that charge in a dog mauling case in California. In fact, murder appears to have been proven only twice in U.S. dog mauling cases.
Sabine Davidson of Milford, Kan., was convicted of second-degree murder in 1997 after her three Rottweilers killed an 11-year-old boy and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Jeffrey Mann of Cleveland was sentenced to 15 years to life in 1993 after he knocked his wife unconscious and ordered his pit bull to attack her.
Two years ago, James Chiavetta of San Bernardino County was charged with second-degree murder but convicted instead of involuntary manslaughter after his pit bull mix killed a 10-year-old boy. He had left the dog unleashed in the yard with an open gate while he napped.
He was sentenced to four years in prison.