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High court orders new proceedings
in fatal dog-mauling case

By Julia Cheever

June 1, 2007

The California Supreme Court yesterday ordered a new trial court hearing on whether a San Francisco woman whose dogs fatally mauled a neighbor six years ago can be convicted of second-degree murder.

The high court said unanimously that San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren used the wrong standard when he set aside a second-degree murder conviction for Marjorie Knoller and granted her a new trial on that charge.

Knoller, 51, who now lives in Florida, has already been released on parole from a four-year sentence for the lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter in the death of lacrosse coach Diane Whipple on Jan. 26, 2001.

But if the jury's original verdict of second-degree murder is reinstated, she could be returned to prison for 12 or more additional years.

Whipple, 33, was attacked and killed by two powerful Presa Canario guard dogs owned by Knoller and her husband and law partner, Robert Noel, in the hallway of their San Francisco apartment building.

Trial evidence showed that Whipple suffered 77 wounds from the 130- and 150-pound dogs and lost one-third of her blood. Before the fatal mauling, there were about 30 incidents of the dogs being out of control or threatening humans and other dogs, the court said.

The attack occurred when Knoller was returning to her apartment after taking one of the dogs, Bane, for a walk on the roof of the Pacific Heights building. After the mauling began, the second dog, Hera, joined Bane in the hallway.

Deputy California Attorney General Amy Haddix, who represented prosecutors in the appeal, said, "We are gratified and pleased that the new-trial ruling can be relitigated."

Haddix said the new proceedings will take some time because Warren, the original trial judge, has retired and a new judge will have to review the records of the case.

Haddix said, "We feel very strongly that she should be punished to the full extent of the law and we are ready to see it through."

Knoller's attorney, Dennis Riordan, said Knoller believes the yet-to-be-assigned Superior Court judge will again find that "the evidence in her case is clearly insufficient to support a second degree murder conviction."

The high court, in a ruling issued at its San Francisco headquarters, said Warren used too high a standard when he said Knoller couldn't be convicted of second-degree murder unless she was found to have believed her actions would result "in a high probability of death."

Instead, the court said, the correct standard is whether a defendant had "a conscious disregard for human life."

The panel also said the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco set too low a standard when it all but reinstated Knoller's second-degree murder conviction in a ruling two years ago.

The appeals court said that awareness of a danger of great bodily harm, as opposed to awareness of a risk of death, could be a basis for a second-degree murder conviction.

But the state Supreme Court said the lower court ruling was contrary to court precedents establishing the standard for second-degree murder as conscious disregard for human life.

Justice Joyce Kennard wrote that "the Court of the Appeal set the bar too low" and "the trial court set the bar too high."

Riordan said the panel's rejection of the Court of Appeal standard "vindicates the rule of law in California."

The attorney said, "The high court applied to Ms. Knoller's case those legal principles which govern every murder case in California, whether the defendant be viewed as a pillar of the community or a social pariah."

Noel, 65, who was not present during the attack, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the Superior Court trial in 2002 and sentenced to four years in prison.

Both Noel and Knoller were released on parole after serving nearly three years of the four year sentences, with credit for good behavior while in prison.

Haddix said the penalty for second-degree murder is 15 years to life in prison. She said Knoller would get credit for the time already served if her second-degree murder conviction is reinstated.

The new trial judge in the case will determine whether the evidence and jury instructions in the 2002 trial justified Knoller's original second-degree murder conviction under the standard announced by the court. That judge's ruling could be appealed, which could mean that it may be months or years before Knoller's case is resolved.

Knoller and Noel were originally caring for the dogs for Pelican Bay State Prison inmate Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, but in early 2001 registered themselves as owners.

Schneider, a member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, was planning a guard dog business to be called "Dog-O-War."

The two attorneys met Schneider, who was serving a life term, at the state prison in 1999 when they were representing a prison guard. They completed adopting him as their son three days after Whipple's death.

In 2003, Schneider pleaded guilty in U.S. district court in San Francisco to a federal racketeering charge related to a murder and other crimes committed outside the prison by Aryan Brotherhood associates. He was sentenced to another life term and transferred to a federal prison.

Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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