The bizarre dog-mauling trial that has gripped California for the past month reached a suitably dramatic climax yesterday when the owner of two Presa Canario attack dogs that killed a 33-year-old lacrosse coach was found guilty of second-degree murder.
This was a case that could not have been invented by even the most lurid tabloid newspaper, with two singularly unsympathetic defendants, a peculiar relationship that they cultivated with a pair of tattooed white supremacists, an even more bizarre relationship with their deadly dogs that may have stretched to bestiality, and an eccentric defence lawyer who appeared even more unpleasant than they did.
The verdict also set a legal precedent, since no dog owner in a mauling case has been successfully prosecuted for murder before in the United States. Marjorie Knoller, the defendant who was with the killer dogs when they lunged for Diane Whipple and ripped her to pieces in a San Francisco apartment complex 14 months ago, was convicted on three counts in all and faces a minimum sentence of 15 years behind bars.
Knoller's husband, Robert Noel, was not charged with murder since he was not present at the time but was found guilty on the other two counts – ownership of a homicidal dog and involuntary manslaughter. He is likely to serve a minimum of three years in addition to the year he has already spent in detention.
The couple, both lawyers, long ago lost the case in the court of public opinion because of evidence that they gloated about the terror their dogs inspired. They raised the dogs, called Bane and Hera, on behalf of two clients, members of the Aryan Brotherhood serving hard time in a California maximum-security prison, one of whom they later adopted as their son.
Letters and other evidence pointed to a highly unorthodox sexual arrangement between the couple, their son and the dogs. Most of it was deemed inadmissible and never reached the ears of the jury.
At one point, Mr Noel wrote a letter mocking Ms Whipple, describing her as a "timorous mousy blonde", after she had been bitten by one of the dogs a month before the final, fatal encounter. After Ms Whipple died, Ms Knoller initially told investigators that she had been too busy looking for her keys to help her neighbour, although she later changed her story and tried to convince the jury, unsuccessfully, that she had fought tooth and nail to pull the dogs off.
The prosecution presented 30 witnesses who had experienced the viciousness of the dogs first-hand. "What makes it so sad is that it didn't have to happen," prosecuting attorney James Hammer said. "She [Whipple] could be alive today – and she should be alive today, to grow old." Ms Knoller was not helped by her lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, who made an extraordinary spectacle of herself by getting down on all fours in imitation of the dogs, weeping, gnashing her teeth and blaming the whole case on San Francisco's gay community. (Ms Whipple was gay, and her bereaved partner, Sharon Smith, had to fend off accusations from Ms Ruiz that she bore moral responsibility for her death.)
Judge James Warren became so angered by Ms Ruiz's constant interruptions, he threatened to jail her for contempt.
The case was heard in Los Angeles because of the torrent of publicity it generated in San Francisco. The jury, half of whom professed a personal experience with vicious dogs, took three days to reach their verdict.