Features

Dog mauling jury didn’t believe defendants

By Linda Deutsch, The Associated Press
Friday March 22, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Jurors who convicted a San Francisco couple in the dog mauling death of a neighbor said Thursday they did not believe chief defendant Marjorie Knoller and were surprised that she took the witness stand at all. 

“From our point of view, her testimony was not believable,” said Don Newton, 64, foreman of the seven-man, five-woman panel that convicted the couple in the death of Diane Whipple, 33, who was attacked by the couple’s two huge dogs last year. 

Newton said the jurors also found that her husband, Robert Noel, was probably as responsible as she was for the events. 

“Robert Noel didn’t seem to be a very nice person,” he said. 

The seven-man, five-woman jury included many dog owners. 

Jeanne Sluiman, 52, said Knoller’s testimony had so many inconsistencies that the jurors had to go beyond it to other facts in order to make their decisions. 

That opinion was echoed by juror Shawn Antonio, 27, who said, “Because her stories were so fabricated, it was difficult. She’d come up with 10 scenarios of what happened and the only other witness is no longer with us.” 

The jurors were asked their impressions of Knoller’s flamboyant defense attorney, Nedra Ruiz. 

“She’s an amazingly dramatic person,” said Newton. “She’s an incredible actress and I think to some extent she was counterproductive.” 

Several jurors said they felt that Ruiz put on an act of being disorganized and found her antics, such as crawling on the floor, a distraction. 

“I believe what she had to work with was hard,” Sluiman said, “and maybe that’s what looked like the disorganization.” 

Antonio commented, “She was so passionate you couldn’t help but get involved, but she was so scattered it threw you off.” 

The jurors said they waited until the last to decide the most serious charge — second-degree murder against Knoller — realizing it was the most serious and the most difficult. 

“It was a painful decision,” said Newton. “The question of implied malice was a difficult question to decide, but we did decide there was implied malice in her actions.” 

The jurors said they concluded there were numerous warnings to the couple about the danger of the dogs and the couple ignored them. 

“We decided there was not simply one action,” said Newton. “It was a series of actions and failures to heed warnings.” 

Antonio said that the jurors played over several times in the jury room a tape of a TV interview in which Knoller avowed no responsibility for Whipple’s death. 

“There was no kind of sympathy, no kind of apologies,” he said. “It helped us a lot.” 

The jurors said they thought that if the defendants cared, they would have heeded the warnings of a veterinarian who wrote to the couple early on about the danger the huge presa canario dogs posed. 

“If someone wasn’t arrogant they would have had to heed that warning,” Sluiman said. 

The also said that the efforts by Ruiz to challenge the qualifications of the veterinarian and an official of the Humane Society worked against her. 

During the trial Ruiz spent an hour trying to disqualify Randall Lockwood, the last witness in the case, from telling about the danger the dogs posed. 

“I placed a lot of credibility in Dr. Lockwood’s testimony,” said Sluiman, “and also that he was being fought so desperately to be discredited. He knew what he was talking about.” 

She said that “we all agreed (Noel) was not someone we liked but it’s not how we decided the case.” 

Unlike Knoller, Noel did not testify during the trial. During deliberations the jury asked to hear a reading of his testimony to the grand jury that indicted the couple. 

“The reason why we asked for Noel’s previous testimony was in regard to whether we could convict him of manslaughter although he was not present at the time,” Newton said. “It made it clear that he was not any different than Marjorie Knoller in this. He was equally responsible.” 

The jurors said they were a very diverse group in age and occupations, but found that when they got behind closed doors they were in agreement. 

Vanessa Caroline, 19, said the reading of Noel’s testimony was helpful because “we based so much on memory.” 

Antonio asked to make one thing clear: “We really didn’t go into this deciding that we would hate these people.”