January 24, 2002 - Dog Mauling Trial Weighs Blame, Bestiality
Jury selection began today in the trial of a San Francisco couple accused of criminal responsibility for the death of their neighbor, who was mauled by their dogs in the doorway of her apartment.
Nearly 300 potential jurors were sworn in today and given 29-page questionnaires that focused on their attitudes towards dogs and how much they knew about the highly publicized case. Roughly 800 prospective jurors have been called for today and Friday. Jury selection is expected to take up to two weeks.
Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, the pair charged in the case, were able to convince a judge that the trial should be moved to Los Angeles because of publicity the mauling received, but failed to win separate trials or the right to keep evidence related to their relationships with the dogs out of the trial.
Both are charged with involuntary manslaughter and keeping a vicious dog. Knoller, who was with the dogs at the time that Diane Whipple was attacked on Jan. 26, 2001, also faces a charge of second-degree murder.
Knoller could face a minimum of 15 years to life in prison if she is convicted of the murder charge. Noel faces a maximum of four years in prison if he is found guilty.
The case could involve evidence that the couple, a pair of San Francisco lawyers who got the presa Canario dogs from a pair of convicts they defended and befriended, engaged in "inappropriate sexual conduct" with the animals, according to prosecutors.
"They blurred the boundaries between dogs and humans, with fatal consequences," San Francisco prosecutor Jim Hammer testified during a hearing earlier this month.
Judge James Warren ruled on Jan. 15 that any evidence related to sexual activity would only be admitted if prosecutors can show how it affected the way the dogs behaved.
"If there is sex that is relevant in this case, either with dogs or with humans, it would be scrutinized outside the presence of the media," Warren said at that hearing.
Today, Warren ruled that television cameras would be allowed in the courtroom for opening arguments, scheduled for Feb. 19, as well as for closing arguments and the verdict.
Placing the Blame
At a grand jury hearing in March, Hammer testified that Bane, the male dog who was determined to be the primary aggressor in the attack, "put his head in Miss Whipple's crotch" and responded to her the way he would have to a "bitch in heat."
The allegations of "inappropriate sexual conduct" are just one of the strange turns the case has taken since Whipple was attacked as she tried to get into her apartment with her groceries a year ago.
First Noel made a series of bold statements to the media in which he seemed to blame Whipple, a university lacrosse coach, for somehow bringing the attack on herself, either by perfume she might have been wearing or by using steroids -- a claim that was never substantiated.
Noel, 59, and Knoller, 45, said they had gotten the dogs from a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, whom they had taken as their legally adopted son. Schneider and another inmate, both members of the Aryan Brotherhood who are serving life without parole, were allegedly trying to operate a business from behind bars raising attack dogs for illegal drug labs.
Schneider and the other inmate had first put the two dogs in the care of another woman, who said she could not keep them because they had grown too vicious.
Documents found in Schneider's cell, including letters and nude photographs of Knoller, provided evidence of sexual activity between the couple and Bane, according to an investigator in the San Francisco District Attorney's office.
In July, the two inmates filed a motion claiming that they should be the targets of the wrongful death suit that Whipple's domestic partner, Sharon Smith, had filed against Noel and Knoller.
Finally, the couple tried to get their trials separated, claiming that statements each had made could prejudice the jury against the other, but Warren denied the motion.
"There isn't anything one way or the other that will show that one defendant is prejudiced by the other," Warren said when he ruled on the motion last week. "This is a classic case for a joint trial."
On Friday, San Francisco will hold an official day of commemoration for Whipple, and family and friends plan to hold a public service for her on Saturday.
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