A former San Francisco lawyer has lost her bid to a federal appeals court in the city to overturn her second-degree murder conviction for the fatal dog-mauling of an apartment neighbor 15 years ago.
Marjorie Knoller, 61, took her appeal to the federal court system through a habeas corpus petition after the state courts upheld her conviction in the death of lacrosse coach Diane Whipple.
Whipple, 33, was attacked and killed on Jan. 26, 2001, in a hallway of her Pacific Heights apartment building by two powerful Presa Canario dogs kept by Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel.
Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder in San Francisco Superior Court in 2002 and was later sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison. After two rounds of appeals, the conviction was upheld by a state appeals court and left in place by the California Supreme Court in 2010.
Knoller then took her case to the federal courts and after being turned down by a federal trial judge in San Francisco in 2014 appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the circuit court unanimously rejected Knoller’s appeal in a brief three-page ruling.
The panel said the trial judge, Superior Court Judge James Warren, erred when he instructed defense attorney Nedra Ruiz to stop making objections during a prosecutor’s rebuttal argument at the trial.
But the panel said the state Court of Appeal in 2010 “did not unreasonably determine” that the error was harmless and that Knoller was not completely deprived of the right to have an effective lawyer.
The federal panel said that under standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court, it was obliged to defer to the state court decision unless it concluded that court’s ruling was unreasonable.
Knoller could appeal for further review by an expanded 11-judge panel of the circuit court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Her appellate lawyer, Dennis Riordan, was not immediately available for comment.
In the 2001 mauling, Knoller was returning from a rooftop walk with one of the dogs, 140-pound Bane, when Bane attacked Whipple as she was carrying a bag of groceries to her apartment. The other dog, Hera, came out of Knoller’s apartment and joined the attack.
Whipple, a women’s lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, suffered 77 wounds and lost one-third of her blood, according to trial evidence.
Noel, who was not present at the attack, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was released on parole after serving nearly three years of his four-year sentence.
Knoller and Noel, who were law partners, were caring for the dogs for a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider. Noel registered himself and Knoller as the owners on Jan. 3, 2001.
Schneider, a convicted attempted murderer, was a member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and was planning a guard dog business to be called “Dog-O-War.” Knoller and Noel completed proceedings to adopt him as their son three days after Whipple’s death.
A key issue in the earlier appeals in the state court system was the standard for second-degree murder. In 2007, the California Supreme Court said Knoller could be convicted of that crime under state law if she acted in conscious disregard for human life.
In its 2010 decision, the state Court of Appeal said that standard was met. The state court said Knoller “knew that her conduct was dangerous to human life” when she took untrained, aggressive and uncontrollable dogs out in public without a muzzle.
Julia Cheeve, Bay City News