Dog attack case opens door to new legal rights for gays

By David Kravets, The Associated Press
Saturday March 23, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — The case of two lawyers convicted after their dogs mauled and killed a San Francisco lesbian has opened the door to new legal rights for gays in California. 

In response to the savage attack, California lawmakers last year passed legislation granting the dead woman’s gay partner, Sharon Smith, the same legal rights as married couples or family members — enabling her to sue the dog owners for wrongful death. 

“It will lead to other things that will be good for me and my partner, and my friends and their partners,” said Johnnie Pratt, a San Francisco lesbian. 

Lacrosse coach Diane Whipple died when she was attacked by two huge dogs in the hallway outside her San Francisco apartment in January 2001. Marjorie Knoller was convicted of murder, and her husband, Robert Noel, was convicted of manslaughter Thursday. 

California Assemblywoman Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat, had introduced the legislation granting gays the same rights as married couples or family members before Whipple’s murder. But she said the mauling helped the bill clear the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis. 

“It created a very compelling, real-life image of the consequences of tragedy and the inequities in society,” Migden said Friday. 

Only California, Hawaii and Vermont grant such status to gays and lesbians to sue on behalf of their partners, said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. 

Other states may follow suit. For example, efforts to grant gays and lesbians additional legal rights and responsibilities associated with marriage remain under consideration in Connecticut. A key legislator there said a bill being crafted may include a provision granting someone the right to be treated as a crime victim if a partner is murdered. 

Some groups, however, are outraged over Smith’s legal standing to sue. 

“It’s unfortunate that Gov. Gray Davis and radical gay activists have already abused and misused this tragic case in their political quest to undermine marriage,” said Randy Thomasson, director of Campaign for California Families. 

Sharon Smith’s pending wrongful death suit is the same type that family members used to successfully sue O.J. Simpson after his acquittal on charges of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. 

“I think this case certainly did illustrate the lack of legal recognition and the compounded pain that that causes with the lack of legal recognition,” said Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. 

The National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, one of the law firms behind Sharon Smith’s suit, said the group soon will seek a trial date in the wrongful death case against Noel and Knoller. The civil case was delayed pending the outcome of the criminal case against the couple, who were tried in Los Angeles because of pre-trial publicity in San Francisco. 

Ruth Herring, one of the group’s directors, said that California’s legislation “was an acknowledgment that Sharon and Diane were actually family members like any family spouse would have been.” 

“This is not all about money, it’s about justice,” Herring said. 

Knoller, 46, faces 15 years to life in prison when she is sentenced May 10 for second-degree murder. Noel, 60, faces up to four years in the death of the 33-year-old woman. Knoller, who was walking the dogs at the time of the attack, was charged with the more serious crime.