Criminal Justice

CA Supreme Court: Lawyer May Be Guilty of Murder in Dog Mauling Death

A former lawyer convicted of manslaughter after her two uncontrolled dogs killed a San Francisco neighbor on the doorstep of her home could face additional prison time due to a California Supreme Court ruling today.

However, the ruling is something of a victory for Marjorie Knoller, 52, because it leaves open the possibility that her original second-degree murder conviction for the 2001 death of Diane Whipple, 33, might not be reinstated, writes the Los Angeles Times.

Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder by a California jury in 2002, but the trial judge reduced the crime to manslaughter. This was based on a finding that she wasn’t aware there was a “high probability” her two leashed dogs, each more than 100 pounds, would escape her control and kill someone, even though they had a history of aggression. An appellate court then reinstated the murder conviction, saying that Knoller should have known the dogs could cause great bodily harm. The California Supreme Court said both lower courts applied the wrong standard of proof for Knoller’s knowledge of how dangerous the dogs were, with the trial court putting the bar too high and the appeals court settinig it too low, reports AP.

The supreme court today remanded the case back to the trial court, which could still uphold the second-degree murder conviction if it finds, under the correct “implied malice” standard, that Knoller had “an awareness of the risk of death” posed by the dogs and “acted with conscious disregard of the danger to human life,” its written opinion (PDF) explains.

Whipple’s death incited public outrage, particularly because both Knoller and her husband, who was also a lawyer at the time and responsible for the dogs, reacted in a callous manner “basically blam[ing] … Whipple for her own death,” as the supreme court put it. Robert Noel, 65, was convicted of manslaughter because he wasn’t present at the scene of the killing. Both served several-year prison terms, and Whipple now reportedly could be sentenced to as much as another 15 years if her murder conviction is reinstated.

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