- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

LOS ANGELES A woman whose two huge dogs mauled a neighbor to death in their San Francisco apartment building was convicted yesterday of murder, a charge rarely leveled in an animal attack. Her husband was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Marjorie Knoller, 46, could get 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder conviction in last year's death of 33-year-old Diane Whipple.
Knoller looked stricken upon hearing the verdict, fighting back tears and turning to look at her parents. She appeared to mouth, "Help."
Her 60-year-old husband, Robert Noel, showed no reaction. Both were convicted on the manslaughter charge, as well as having a mischievous dog that killed someone.
Sentencing was set for May 10 in San Francisco. In all, the jury deliberated for about 11 hours during three days before convicting the couple on all counts.
A large group of Miss Whipple's friends and her lesbian girlfriend, Sharon Smith, burst into tears in the courtroom.
"There's no real joy in this, but certainly some measure of justice for Diane was done today," Miss Smith said later. "I'm glad to see the jury didn't buy some of the smoke screens that were put in front of them."
The jurors reached verdicts on everything but the murder count on Wednesday. They said they took up the murder charge last because it was the most serious charge and the most difficult.
Juror Shawn Antonio, 27, said that the jurors played repeatedly a TV interview of Knoller in which she disavowed responsibility for Miss Whipple's death.
"There was no kind of sympathy, no kind of apologies," he said. "It helped us a lot."
Knoller's murder conviction is believed to be only the third in U.S. history in a dog-mauling case. But in pursuing the charge, prosecutors said the husband-and-wife lawyers knew their two powerful Presa Canarios were "time bombs," and they brought in more than 30 witnesses who said they had been terrorized by the dogs, Bane and Hera.
The defense contended that Knoller and Noel could not have known their animals would kill and that Knoller tried to save Miss Whipple by throwing herself between her neighbor and Bane. They also disputed the witnesses' accounts of being menaced by the dogs.
The gruesome case was a sensation in San Francisco. Miss Whipple was killed outside her door in exclusive Pacific Heights, her throat ripped open by the exotic breed of dogs known for its ferocity.
Soon word spread that the owners were lawyers who specialized in lawsuits on behalf of inmates. They were also in the process of adopting an inmate, white-supremacist gang member Paul Schneider, who 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 going soft there. The dogs' former caretaker later testified that she had warned Knoller that Hera was so dangerous it "should have been shot."
After the attack on Jan. 26, 2001, Knoller and Noel blamed Miss Whipple. Noel, who was not present during the attack and was not charged with murder, suggested that Miss Whipple may have attracted the dogs' attention with her perfume or even steroids.
"It's not my fault," Knoller said in a TV interview that was played for the jury. "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."
"Marjorie, from what I could see, never took any responsibility until it was convenient for her to do so at trial," the victim's mother, Penny Whipple-Kelly, said afterward. "They had tried all along to blame my daughter and anybody else that they possibly could instead of looking at themselves."
The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of concern that the heavy publicity would prevent a fair trial in San Francisco. The attack so traumatized the usually pet-friendly city that police tightened enforcement of leash laws and city officials briefly considered a muzzle law.
The case made legal history even before the trial began when Miss Smith claimed the same right as a spouse to sue for damages. The Legislature enacted a law to allow such lawsuits by homosexual "partners."
The trial itself was grim. The jurors were shown 77 bloody photos of Miss Whipple's wounds, many of them blown up to wall size on a movie screen. The prosecutors said the 110-pound college lacrosse coach had been bitten everywhere except the top of her head and the soles of her feet.
Experts said the 120-pound Bane delivered the fatal wounds, and prosecutors said Hera tore at Miss Whipple's clothing during the attack. Both dogs were later put to death.
Knoller testified for three days, crying, shouting and insisting she never suspected that 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," she sobbed, referring to Bane.
Noel did not testify and contended through his attorney that he had no warning the dogs would kill. But his letters to the couple's adopted son were read to the jury. Two weeks before the attack, Noel wrote about an incident in which Miss Whipple was frightened by the dogs as she entered the building's elevator.
In the letter, Noel referred to Miss Whipple as a "timorous little mousy blond."
After the attack, he wrote another letter bemoaning the death of Bane and vowing to fight for the life of Hera.
He wrote about his neighbors, "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move."

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