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Judge Speaks in Dog Mauling Trial

Aired June 17, 2002 - 12:20   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now we want to take you out to California, where a judge there is about to decide either to rule a new trial should take place for Marjorie Knoller and her husband in the dog mauling trial, or he may be sentencing them. So let's listen in now.


JUDGE JAMES WARREN: ... and the defendants knew that this was the case and that this was, indeed, the plan of the Aryan brotherhood. When the defendants first saw the dogs, it was in Hayfork. They were being transferred to the defendants' care. The woman who was in charge of the dogs at that time told the defendants that these dogs were rather dangerous, that they had not been personalized, and they had to be very, very careful about what these dogs could do.

She indicated that the dogs had already killed chickens, sheep -- and when I say dogs, the court points out that there was a large number of Presa Canarios up there. Interestingly, the court did not find any evidence in any of this that Bane, the male dog who everybody concedes was involved in the death of Diane Whipple, had done any of the killing of the animals at the Hayfork farm. Hera is a different story, as were some of Hera's and Bane's siblings and half siblings.

The dogs were examined by a veterinarian. The veterinarian said that he found these dogs extremely dangerous, that he wrote a letter -- the first time he had ever written a letter along this nature in his life -- saying that to take these dogs into the city was essentially foolish. There was no question but that these dogs would eventually cause trouble. They were huge, they were not well mannered, they were not trained. And to take dogs of this massive size into a city environment was not a good thing to do.

The defendants did it anyway. They brought the dogs down. The dogs had some medical problems requiring them to go into veterinary care, but ultimately, the dogs ended up in the Knoller apartment on Pacific Avenue.

From the very beginning, we have encounters. We talked at the trial about good dog witnesses, bad dog witnesses. The bad dog witnesses were people who came and testified -- some 34 of them -- as to things they had witnessed with these animals that they considered to be dangerous: lunging; growling; teeth baring; snarling; and in one case, it was with Mr. Noel, severing a finger. The court is quick to point out that that was not because the dog was aggressive against Mr. Noel. The dog got involved in a fight on the beach.

Who started it is irrelevant to the court's consideration here. All the court knows is that the hand of Mr. Noel was put into the middle of this fight, and he ended up with four fingers instead of five. Not literally, but very close to it. The point of that is that the dogs could clearly do some pretty bad stuff.

I'm not going to go through -- and I have it here -- all of the bad dog witnesses.

The court, for all practical purposes, is discounting the good dog witnesses in this case, incidentally. The fact that there are 20- some odd witnesses who came and said these dogs were nice, they sat in my restaurant, they came to my house, they walked down the street, they never did anything is fine. In fact, I suspect if you really looked around, you could probably find 2,000 witnesses who could say the same thing.

That's not the point. If all we had were bad dog witnesses, those dogs should have been put down the very first day they arrived in San Francisco. You would expect nothing but an overwhelmingly large number of so-called good dog witnesses in a case like this. What we're talking about is what the bad dog witnesses were and what they said.

There are two encounters that I want to talk about particularly. One of them is the encounter of TMO, little Mr. -- let me get the full name there -- O'Connell I believe it is. Well, in my notes here, I didn't put down -- TMO is the initials of John O'Connell's 6-year-old son, TMO.

Here's what we have. The dogs are being walked. Mr. O'Connell is taking his 6-year-old son to school. They're going down a public street.

Mr. Noel has Bane on a leash. Bane lunges at the dog and comes within anywhere from 12 to 6 inches of the dog's face. And the testimony is, using his great might -- referring to Mr. Noel -- was able to pull the dog back. The dog never came in contact with TMO's face, but that's where the teeth were going.

The question becomes this: Had the dog hit TMO's face, what would have happened, and what is the reasonable inference...

WHITFIELD: All right. I want to bring in our legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, help us better understand exactly what's taking place in this California courtroom. We're hearing from Judge James Warren, who is either going to decide whether to sentence Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, in the dog mauling case, or perhaps give them a whole new trial.

Jeffrey Toobin, you're in New York right now, but you were able to listen in and see what's going on. We're hearing from the judge -- he said he's not likely to bring in new witnesses. But where do we think he might be going right now?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Well, Fredricka, the issue here is chiefly that Marjorie Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder. That's intentional murder. Her lawyers have argued from the beginning of this case that merely having, possessing a dangerous dog, can't amount to intentional murder, even if a tragic accident took place.

The prosecutors argued, and the jury believed, that there were so many warnings that these dogs were dangerous that you could find Marjorie Knoller guilty of second-degree murder, that it was completely foreseeable that a death would take place.

What the judge is doing now is reviewing the evidence to see whether it was foreseeable to the extent that Marjorie Knoller could be convicted of second-degree murder.

WHITFIELD: OK. But that almost implies as though he's determining whether the verdict was justified. Is that what he would be doing in order to determine whether they need to be retried?

TOOBIN: That's right. What trial judges often do is get requests from a defense after a conviction for a new trial. They allow the jury a great deal of latitude. Of course, the jury is usually the last word in most trials, and most new trial motions are denied. But sometimes judges say that the jury was swayed by passion, that no rational jury could have concluded what they concluded.

And that's really what he's deciding. Could a rational jury find that this was second-degree murder? And he's reviewing the evidence right now.

WHITFIELD: So then he's making those -- he's making such discussions apparent right now, at least reverbalizing his observation. He is likely to make his judgment on whether to retry them or not. And then, of course, the second step would be -- you know, that would determine whether or not there is a sentence that he's even going to be considering.

TOOBIN: Right. Well, the first issue is, can he impose sentence? If he finds some reason not to impose sentence, he then decides whether there has to be a whole new trial.

Just judging from what I've heard so far of the judge, he seems favorably disposed towards the prosecution view. He's talking about how there were 34 so-called bad dog witnesses, thirty-four witnesses that the prosecution called that showed how dangerous these two dogs were that Knoller and Noel owned. So he seems inclined toward the prosecution's view, but we have to hear his final decision.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, stick around a moment, because we're going to need to take a short break, but we're going to revisit this case as soon as we can. Whether there will be a ruling, we'll try to bring that to our audience. Or perhaps we'll bring you back into the picture to help us better understand what the next set of motions just might be.




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