Whipples Death Was Second Degree Murder, Rules Trial Court

In 2001, two Presa Canario dogs killed San Francisco resident Diane Whipple. The dogs belonged to Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller. They were convicted of an assortment of felonies in 2002, and the dogs were euthanized. Knoller (not Noel) was charged with second degree murder. The jury voted guilty.

The state and the defendants moved for a new trial. Knoller’s motion was granted. The prosecution filed an appeal. The California Supreme Court had to rewrite the law of second degree murder to side with the prosecution. Based on the new definition of second degree murder, the trial court denied Knoller’s motion yesterday, August 21, 2008. (Click here for the article.) She is scheduled to be sentenced on September 22, 2008. She faces a prison term of 15 years to life.

People v. Knoller and Noel is an example of justice prevailing over law. Knoller’s decision to expose other people to her very ill, cattle-herding dog was nothing less than a choice to expose other people to serious bodily injury or death. Knoller had no right to act on that decision. As a result, the horrific mauling of Diane Whipple was murder by recklessness, called “second degree murder” in California.

While the dog bite lawyer inside me is satisfied, the lawyer is troubled. There is no question that the California Supreme Court had to expand the law of second degree murder in order to achieve Knoller’s conviction. (See The Diane Whipple Case.) The court held that a defendant can be convicted of second degree murder if he has “awareness of engaging in conduct that endangers the life of another.” This was legal but not pretty. 

I am not sure that any dog owner in this society is conscious of the risks posed by his dog, or that society as a whole wants dog owners to bear the burden of those risks. We regard our dogs as family members with minds of their own; we resist the thought that they are killers in our midst, and accept the fact that they make many decisions we disapprove of. Dogs will be dogs. 

Look at the civil law aspects of dog attacks. When last counted 12 years ago, there were 4.7 million dog bites in the USA every year. Unquestionably that number has risen. Nevertheless, the insurance industry makes payments to less than 25,000 dog bite victims annually in this country. (For details on the statistics in this paragraph, see Dog Bite Statistics.)

Now look at the criminal law aspects of dog attacks. There have been scores of fatal dog maulings since 2001, but criminal prosecution of dog owners on any charges are extremely rare. After all, there are 70 million dogs and “only” 30 deaths per year, so who would seriously think that walking a dog will expose neighbors to the risk of death? A jury has to end up believing that the defendant thought about something which was less likely than getting hit by lightening. As a result, we have a minuscule number of civil or criminal charges. It hardly seems to me like this society believes that dog owners should be held responsible for the most outrageous acts of our dogs.

Knoller’s dog was put to death in the street outside the building where Whipple was killed. I have no problem whatsoever with that. But Knoller and the owners of 70 million dogs in the USA are now exposed to murder charges for deeds of their dogs, despite the generally lax attitude of society toward dog attacks. This is a contradiction that needs resolution. 

I would like clear laws that tell dog owners what they will be held accountable for. And then I want those laws enforced. I hope the Diane Whipple murder trial will be an isolated example of justice prevailing over law.