- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO A judge yesterday threw out the second-degree murder conviction of Marjorie Knoller in last year's dog-mauling death of a neighbor and sentenced her husband, Robert Noel, to four years in prison.
Knoller, 46, would have faced 15 years to life in prison but now faces the same sentence as Noel for involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed someone. Her sentencing was delayed until July.
Superior Court Judge James Warren said Knoller and Noel were "the most despised couple in this city" but that the evidence did not support a second-degree murder conviction. He said Knoller had no way of knowing that her dogs would kill someone when she left her apartment that day.
"There is no question in this court's mind that in the eyes of the people, both defendants are guilty of murder," Judge Warren said. "In the eyes of the law, they are not."
The decision dismayed relatives and friends of the 33-year-old victim, college lacrosse coach Diane Whipple, who was fatally mauled by the couple's two huge Presa Canario dogs in their apartment building's hallway last year.
"I'm in shock," said Sharon Smith, Miss Whipple's partner. She shed a tear as the judge tossed out the conviction.
The judge, granting a defense motion, ordered a new trial on the murder charge. Prosecutors said they would ask the judge to reconsider his ruling, though District Attorney Terence Hallinan said he was unsure whether he would retry Knoller for murder.
"I was surprised. I thought this went beyond manslaughter. This was a second-degree murder case. We'll try to get the maximum we can on the sentences that are left and then decide," he said.
Knoller, whose husband was out of town, was walking the dogs just before they attacked Miss Whipple. She testified that she tried to throw herself between the animals and her neighbor.
The judge threw out the murder conviction despite saying he did not believe much of Miss Knoller's testimony.
"I cannot say as a matter of law that she subjectively knew on Jan. 26 that her conduct would cause death," he said.
Judge Warren also pointed out that Noel was not charged with murder and that Noel, in the judge's view, was more culpable than his wife.
The judge said Noel knew his diminutive wife could not control the dogs, each of which weighed more than 100 pounds, and knew they would have to be walked that day. The burly Noel had been unable to control the animals at least twice, the judge said.
The judge said that both Knoller and Noel were cavalier about Miss Whipple's death and blamed the victim in interviews.
"Their conduct from the time that they got the dogs to the weeks after Diane Whipple's death was despicable," the judge said.
At the hearing, Miss Smith addressed Knoller and Noel, noted that both were lawyers and said: "This has been a game to you. It has been one big legal game. This is not a game to me."
She criticized Knoller and Noel for never apologizing or accepting blame.
"I cannot imagine what Diane went through. You can never imagine how I felt knowing the one I loved died alone," Miss Smith testified. "To aggravate my pain, you've never apologized. You were too busy being lawyers to be human. You fail to accept that your actions killed a person."
To the judge, she said: "Frankly, I am shocked that we are discussing manslaughter and not murder."
In court papers, Knoller's attorneys had argued that her trial lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, did not represent her competently, that the judge improperly allowed prosecutors to associate her with a white supremacist prison gang and that Knoller legally could not be convicted of both murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Miss Ruiz's courtroom theatrics during the trial included shouting, kicking the jury box and getting down on all fours to re-enact what she described as Knoller's attempts to protect Miss Whipple.

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