SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP / BCN) — The California Supreme Court has kept in place a second-degree murder conviction for a San Francisco woman whose dogs fatally mauled an apartment neighbor in 2001.
The high court’s seven justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, rejected an appeal by 55-year-old Marjorie Knoller, and confirmed her 15-years-to-life sentence.
The ruling comes after a long legal battle, including a ruling in August by The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.
That court ruled that Knoller acted with a conscious disregard for human life when her powerful and untrained Presa Canario dogs escaped and killed Diane Whipple in an apartment building hallway on Jan. 26, 2001.
Knoller was released from prison in 2004 after a trial judge reduced her second-degree murder conviction to involuntary manslaughter. But she was sent back when another judge reinstated the conviction.
Knoller, a former attorney, is currently serving her sentence at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.
Her husband and law partner, Robert Noel, who was not present at the attack, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was released on parole after serving nearly three years of his four-year sentence.
The mauling occurred as Knoller was returning from a rooftop walk in her Pacific Heights apartment building with her 140-pound dog Bane. Whipple was carrying groceries to her apartment.
Bane began the attack, and Knoller’s second dog, 100-pound Hera, came out of Knoller’s apartment and joined in.
Whipple, a lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, suffered 77 wounds on her body, had all her clothes ripped off, and lost one-third of her blood, according to trial evidence.
Knoller was originally convicted of second-degree murder in a trial held in Los Angeles in 2002, but the trial judge, San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren, granted a new trial on that charge.
After appeals by both sides, the case went to the California Supreme Court for a ruling on what the correct standard should be for second-degree murder conviction, as opposed to a lesser conviction of involuntary manslaughter.
In a key decision in the case, the state high court said in 2007 that Knoller could be convicted of second-degree murder if she acted in conscious disregard for human life.
Because Warren had retired, the case was assigned to San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard, who concluded in 2008 that the original murder conviction was justified.
In August, the state Court of Appeal upheld Woolard’s decision, saying that Knoller “knew that her conduct was dangerous to human life” when she took the untrained, aggressive and uncontrollable dogs out in public without a muzzle.
A three-judge panel said Knoller knew of the dogs’ dangerousness from a veterinarian’s warning, literature found in her apartment about the breed’s aggressiveness, and 30 incidents in previous months in which the dogs had threatened or attacked people or other dogs.
Justice James Lambden wrote in that ruling that Knoller “had clear notice that she could not and often did not control the Presas.”
“Her disregard for Whipple’s life was inferable from the fact that she never called 911 for help, never asked after the attack about Whipple’s condition, and returned to the scene of the attack not to assist the dying Whipple, but to find her keys,” Lambden said.
A neighbor who heard Whipple’s shouts and the dogs’ barks and growls called 911 to summon police, who found Whipple in the blood-stained hallway, covered with wounds and trying to crawl to her apartment. Whipple died after being taken to a hospital.
Knoller and Noel were caring for the dogs for a prison inmate, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, and registered themselves as owners in early 2001.
Schneider, a convicted attempted murderer whom the couple adopted as their son three days after the attack, was a member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and was planning a guard dog business to be called “Dog-O-War.”
Wednesday’s high court action ended Knoller’s state court appeals of Woolard’s decision, but she could still challenge her conviction further through a habeas corpus petition in federal court. Her lawyer, Dennis Riordan, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
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