Justice Bites Back

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Following a full month of sound and fury, justice arrived last week with a silent plea. At the end of a case marked by sensational testimony and courtroom theatrics, verdicts were handed down in the trial of Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, a couple whose huge Presa Canario dogs brutally killed a neighbor in the hallway of their San Francisco apartment building last year. According to a witness, Diane Whipple, 33, had screamed for aid as she fought the beasts. Both Noel and Knoller sat stone-faced in court as each was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous animal. When Knoller was also convicted on a more serious charge of second-degree murder, her face slowly crumbled. Then she turned to her elderly parents and silently mouthed the same words Whipple had called out in the corridor: "Help me."

Knoller and Noel's arrogance before and after the attack hurt their case. The couple had blatantly disregarded previous aggressive behavior by their dogs, says jury foreman Don Newton, and Knoller's testimony on her behalf didn't hold up to scrutiny. "Everything she said was suspect," Newton told Time, adding there was never serious dissent among any of the jurors during the 11 1/2 hours of deliberations. "We had a unanimous verdict throughout all of it. The mischievous-animal charge was a no-brainer, then we decided involuntary manslaughter, and then there was some discussion of second-degree murder and implied malice." The grand jury that handed up the original indictment last March didn't seem to care for Knoller and Noel either: after hearing the couple's testimony, the panel added the murder charge to Knoller's initial charge of manslaughter.

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In addition to the case's bizarre back story--the defendants kept the dogs for a neo-Nazi gang member serving time in a maximum-security prison--the defense provided other fireworks for the media circus in attendance. In her opening statement, Knoller's attorney Nedra Ruiz (who studied at the American Conservatory Theater) cried, kicked the jury box and crawled on the floor to re-create the attack. During closing arguments, Ruiz played the lesbian card (Whipple was gay) and accused the victim's lover, Sharon Smith, of perjury. She also suggested that the prosecution withheld evidence "to curry favor with the homosexual or gay folks who are picketing" and later added that the judge "caved in to political pressure."

While Ruiz's comments about gays' lobbying about the case were dismissed by many activists as a desperate, last-gasp ploy, there is no question that the homosexual community has been deeply affected by the case. Smith is suing Noel, Knoller and their apartment-building owner in civil court, marking the first time in the U.S. that a same-sex partner has won the right to pursue a wrongful death claim over his or her mate. "The California statute was amended to expressly say domestic partners can sue, and that was, in part, due to Sharon Smith's testimony before the state legislature about her situation," explains Jon Davidson, senior counsel for the gay-rights organization Lambda. (Vermont and Hawaii now also allow wrongful death suits by same-sex partners.)

With only two other people ever convicted for a murder caused by their dog, the nuances of the Whipple case hold far-reaching implications for pet owners. "This is a historic, landmark verdict," declares Kenneth Phillips, an L.A. attorney specializing in dog-bite cases. "It shows a dog doesn't have to be trained to attack for their owner to be held criminally responsible if the animal inflicts death." The Knoller verdict could sway jurors in Wisconsin to convict another couple facing homicide charges, which were filed after a Valentine's Day tragedy in which their six Rottweilers killed a 10-year-old girl.

Ironically, Whipple was quite fond of canines--friendly ones, at least. "She loved dogs, and when we first met, she had a Labrador," Smith told Time. "After she moved in with me, she wanted to bring her dog up from San Diego, but we couldn't imagine having a big dog given the size of our apartment."

Both Noel and Knoller are expected to appeal their verdicts when they return to court for sentencing on May 10. (Knoller, who was present at the time of the attack, faces 15 years to life in prison; Noel, who was out of town, could get four years.) On May 17, defense counsel Ruiz and San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan will appear before the same judge for alleged violations of a court gag order--Hallinan for saying Knoller made things up during her grand jury testimony, and Ruiz for appearing on a cable news show, where she accused Smith of lying. Sometimes, it seems, dogs aren't the only ones who need to be muzzled.