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California couple guilty in dog mauling case

Knoller gasped upon hearing the verdicts Thursday afternoon.  

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The owners of two dogs that attacked and killed a neighbor in their San Francisco apartment building were found guilty Thursday of all charges against them, including involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous animal that kills.

One of the owners, Marjorie Knoller -- who was present during the January 2001 mauling -- was also found guilty of second-degree murder. Courtroom spectators gasped, and Knoller, 46, grimaced, trembled and breathed heavily as the unprecedented verdict was read.

"Oh my God," she mouthed.

Her husband, Robert Noel, 60, sat silently as the verdict was read. He was not at home at the time of the attacks, but jurors apparently agreed with the prosecution's argument that he and his wife had ignored repeated warnings about their two large Presa Canarios -- Bane and Hera -- and knew they were a danger.

The couple was charged in the January 26, 2001, mauling death of Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old San Francisco lacrosse coach. Whipple was killed in the hallway of the apartment building she shared with Knoller and Noel as she returned home from a trip to the grocery store.

The verdicts:
Marjorie Knoller
Guilty of second-degree murder

Guilty of involuntary manslaughter

Guilty of owning a mischievous animal that kills

Robert Noel
Guilty of involuntary manslaughter

Guilty of owning a mischievous animal that kills

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Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel react to their guilty verdicts being read in court in the fatal dog mauling trial (March 21)

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CNN's Thelma Gutierrez has a look at the dramatic and theatrical Nedra Ruiz, who is defense attorney in the dog mauling case (March 21)

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Indictment: People v. Knoller and Noel  (FindLaw document, PDF format)

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The prosecution laid out more than 30 incidents or warnings involving the 100-plus-pound dogs, which since have been destroyed.

Superior Court Judge James Warren set a May 10 sentencing date for the couple.

Knoller faces a sentence of 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder.

Noel and Knoller both face sentences of two to four years in prison on the involuntary manslaughter charges, while owning a mischievous animal that kills carries a sentence of 16 months to three years.

Long history of complaints

The five-week trial gripped much of the nation as prosecutors described a horrific attack in which Whipple was bitten all over her body -- her throat ripped, her clothes torn off -- by at least one of the dogs.

The jury of seven men and five women saw graphic photos of the victim's ravaged body, with wounds visible from her ankles to her face, and pictures of the blood-stained hallway where the attack occurred. Jurors also heard about a curious relationship the husband-and-wife attorneys had with two state prisoners, including the adoption of one.

The couple's connection to the state prisoners was brought up because prosecutors said they operated a kennel with the inmates that raised attack dogs.

In tearful testimony over three days, Knoller said Bane pulled her down the hallway to Whipple, and she tried in vain to stop the attack. The other dog was loose in the hallway. Knoller insisted she had no idea her "loving" pets were capable of such an attack.

Adding to the courtroom drama was the conduct of her attorney, Nedra Ruiz, who at times cried, sparred with the judge and crawled on the floor to depict the fatal struggle.

Noel did not testify, but his attorney insisted he was blameless, noting he was not home at the time of the attack.

But jurors heard from several witnesses who said the dogs either lunged at them or exhibited aggressive behavior. And the prosecution played television interviews and read letters the couple wrote to state prisoners in which the husband and wife showed little remorse for the fatal mauling.

"Neighbors be damned," Noel wrote in one letter, according to prosecutors.

Don Newton, the jury foreman, said the number of prior incidents involving the dogs undermined the defense claim that the mauling was nothing more than a tragic accident.

"It was a series of actions -- a series of failures to heed warnings, a series of careless taking of the dogs out and allowing them to lunge at people and attack people, that they had fallen into a pattern of actions which were inevitably leading to this result," Newton said.

Verdict represents 'some closure'

Whipple's mother described herself as "very happy" with the verdict.

"I feel that justice was done here," said Penny Whipple Kelly. The owners never took any responsibility for the attack, she said. "They had tried all along to blame my daughter and anybody else they possibly could instead of looking at themselves," she said.

Noel remained impassive as he heard the verdicts.  

Sharon Smith, Whipple's domestic partner, wept and was hugged by her attorney when the verdict was read. "There's no real joy in this, but certainly some measure of justice was done for Diane today," she told reporters.

The verdict, she said, represented "some closure."

The trial was moved out of San Francisco because of heavy publicity. The case resonated with the city's large gay population because the victim had lived with her life partner, Smith, who successfully sought for the right to sue as a surviving spouse. Ruiz had charged in court that the prosecution was trying to "curry favor" with that community in its pursuit of the case.

The jury reached decisions on four of the counts by Wednesday afternoon, but the verdicts were sealed until the final charge was settled Thursday.

Smith and Whipple's mother both said they were pursuing civil suits in the matter.

Prosecutor Jim Hammer said the verdict should send a message to pet owners that they must be responsible.

"For a muzzle, Diane Whipple would be alive, and they choose not to do it," he said.

At a press conference, he displayed a collegiate lacrosse ring that had belonged to Whipple and was given to him by Smith. He said he kept it in his pocket throughout the trial.

"Hopefully, Diane Whipple's death will prevent other people from dying," he said. "That will be one small part of her legacy."

There was no comment from the defense after Thursday's verdict.


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