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Judge Grants New Trial in Dog-Mauling Case

Aired June 17, 2002 - 12:36   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go right back out to California now, what appears to be a ruling coming from the judge.

Let's listen in.


JUDGE JAMES WARREN, CALIFORNIA SUPERIOR COURT: ... evidence and determine independently, rather as a new jury, what the evidence showed. I have laid out most of the evidence as it harms the defendants in this case. Their conduct from the time that they got the dogs to the time, to the weeks after Diane Whipple's death was despicable.

There was one time on the stand, Ms. Knoller, when I truly believed what you said. You broke down in the middle of a totally unscripted answer. And you actually -- instead of crying, you actually got mad. And you said you had no idea that this dog could do what he did. And you pounded the table. I believed you. It was the only time, but I did believe you.

The California legislature, which is the governing body in this case, has said that the owner of a dangerous dog that kills is guilty of a violation of 399, Penal Code. If a person acts with criminal negligence and a death occurs, a person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A person is guilty of second-degree murder if that person subjectively knows, based on everything, that the conduct that he or she is about to engage in has a high probability of death to another human being.

What we have in this case as it relates to Ms. Knoller is the decision to take the dog outside into her hallway up to the roof to go to the bathroom, to bring it back down and put it in the apartment. There is no question but that taking the dog out into the hallway, by that very act, exposed the dog -- or exposed other people in the apartment, whether they are residents there or guests, invitees, to what might happen with the dog.

When you take everything as a totality, the question of whether or not, as a subjective matter and as a matter of law, Ms. Knoller knew that there was a high probability on that day, or the day before or on the day after. I reject totally the argument of the defendants that she had to know as she walked out the door she was going to kill somebody that morning. The court finds that the evidence does not support it. This does not in any way, in any way, excuse or change or otherwise affect the horror of what happened. This does not minimize the loss that happened in this case. This does not minimize or excuse the despicable conduct of the defendants. I don't believe that there is anybody in San Francisco who would rather not see Ms. Knoller go to prison for second-degree murder.

I have received letters suggesting that the death penalty is appropriate in this case. The court has no choice, however, taking the legislative scheme, the evidence that is received, as despicable as it is, but to determine not that she is acquitted of second-degree murder, but to find that, on the state of the evidence, I cannot say, as a matter of law, that she subjectively knew on January 26 that her conduct was such that a human being was likely to die.

The court also notes the great troubling feature of this case: that Mr. Noel was never charged as Ms. Knoller was. In the court's view and given the evidence, Mr. Noel is more culpable than she. Mr. Noel personally knew that she could not control those dogs. He could not control those dogs. Mr. Noel was substantially haughtier than she was in brushing off all of the incidents that happened out on the street.

Mr. Noel knew, to a theological certainty, that that dog which had recently been operated on and was taking medications that had given it diarrhea, was going to go out into the hallway, or out into the street possibly, at the hands of Ms. Knoller. He knew that he couldn't take care of her. And he left her there to do that. To argue that he is not responsible because he wasn't there is to argue that, by setting a bomb off in a locker and then getting on an airplane and going to New York City, you are not responsible for the damages caused by the bomb.

And yet Mr. Noel was not charged. Equality of sentencing and the equal administration of justice is an importance feature in any criminal court. That played a role as well. As far as the involuntary manslaughter charges, and as far as the ownership of a mischievous dog that kills, the evidence is overwhelming, taking into account all of the assignations of error. They are supported utterly and without question by the jury's verdict in this case.

The motion for a new trial as to second-degree murder as to Marjorie Knoller is granted. The motion for a new trial as to involuntary manslaughter and owner of a mischievous dog as to Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel is denied.

Counsel, it is 10:00. We're going to be in recess until 10:15, at which time the court will proceed with sentencing in this matter.

WHITFIELD: All right, let's bring in our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin to better help us understand what Judge James Warren just ruled on.

Did we hear him correctly that it's a sort of a split decision there on a new trial on one part, not a new trial on another? Explain.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: But this was a major, major victory for the defense in this case.

Marjorie Knoller -- the most important charge in this case was second-degree murder, which carries a sentences of 15 years on life. There, the prosecution was required to prove that Marjorie Knoller knew, that she know there was a high probability that this dog was going to kill. The judge said, based on the evidence he saw, that there was not enough evidence to prove that she faced -- that this dog was going to kill, that she knew this dog was going to kill.

So, he overturned that part of conviction, meaning that she faces a much, much lower sentence than she would have otherwise. I think -- I am entirely not sure of this, but based on my calculations, if this conviction on second-degree murder had stood, Marjorie Knoller have been convicted -- would have faced 15 years to life. Instead, she and her husband face up to four years in prison. So, it's a enormous difference in terms of sentence.

And one of the reasons the judge said that he overturned her conviction for second-degree murder is that the husband, Noel, was not charged with it. So, he felt that the husband was more culpable and he wasn't facing this big sentence. He thought that was unjust. So, both of them are convicted only of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous animal.

So, in 15 minutes, when court comes back, they will only be sentenced on those two charges, not on the murder count against Marjorie Knoller.

WHITFIELD: And significant, too, because he certainly did say that both of them were equally culpable. That essentially is what are you saying his ruling meant: that there no is no way that one party, between the couple, could be held more responsible than the other.

TOOBIN: That's right.

And he also said that their conduct was despicable. He wasn't defending them in any way. But he was very clear in the central legal issue in the case. Did Marjorie Knoller know that there was a high probability that this dog named Bane would kill? And the judge said, no, she did not subjectively know that this dog was going to kill. So, he had to overturn the murder conviction.

WHITFIELD: So, involuntary manslaughter, receiving a sentence of up to four years in prison as the maximum, still stands. Yet Marjorie Knoller will be able to be tried once again on the second-degree murder charge?

TOOBIN: Well, the question then will be: Does the prosecutor want to retry the case? The convictions still stand.

The prosecutor may say -- and I don't really know what Terence Hallinan will say at this point. But he has the convictions on involuntary manslaughter and keeping the mischievous animal. He may say: "We're not going to do any better than that. We're not going to subject the victim's family to another trial, the county to another expense of this kind."

But the ball will now be in the prosecutors' court on whether to retry the second-degree murder charge.

WHITFIELD: And you feel it's pretty likely the prosecutors are likely to be considering a great deal the feelings, the emotions of the family members of the victim? You could see them in the courtroom, that they are devastated.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. This was a huge victory for the defense. It means many, many fewer years in prison for Marjorie Knoller. And the victim's families were distraught. The prosecutors were obviously very unhappy. So, they are going to have to reevaluate their options. Part of what they decide undoubtedly will depend on what sentence is imposed when the judge comes back to the bench in just a few minutes.

WHITFIELD: All right, and we'll of course be revisiting that.

Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much for joining us from New York to help us better understand that.

So, so far, it looks as though the Supreme Court judge, James Warren, has overturned a second-degree manslaughter (sic) charge against Marjorie Knoller in the dog-mauling case. But he let stand the involuntary manslaughter charges. A sentencing could be coming later on this afternoon from him. The maximum sentence for those involuntary manslaughter charges -- or convictions, rather -- are up to four years maximum.




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