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Couple guilty in dog mauling death

A woman whose two huge dogs mauled a neighbor to death in their San Francisco apartment building was convicted Thursday of murder, a charge almost never leveled in an animal attack. Her husband was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Marjorie Knoller, 46, could get 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder conviction in last year's death of 33-year-old Diane Whipple, whose throat was ripped open in a gruesome attack.

Knoller looked stricken upon hearing the verdict, fighting back tears and turning to look at her parents. She appeared to mouth, "Help."

Her 60-year-old husband, Robert Noel, showed no reaction. Both were convicted on the manslaughter charge, as well as having a mischievous dog that killed someone. Those charges carry up to four years each.

Sentencing was set for May 10 in San Francisco. The jury deliberated for 11{ hours over three days before convicting the couple on all counts.

A large group of Whipple's friends and her domestic partner, Sharon Smith, burst into tears in the courtroom.

"There's no real joy in this but certainly some measure of justice for Diane was done today," Smith said later. "I'm glad to see the jury didn't buy some of the smokescreens that were put in front of them."

The jurors reached verdicts on everything but the murder count Wednesday. They said they took up the murder charge last, realizing it was the most serious and most difficult.

Juror Shawn Antonio, 27, said that the jurors repeatedly played a TV interview of Knoller in which she disavowed responsibility for Whipple's death.

"There was no kind of sympathy, no kind of apologies," he said. "It helped us a lot."

It was the first murder conviction in a dog-mauling case in California and was believed to be only the third of its kind in recent U.S. history.

Prosecutors said the husband-and-wife lawyers knew their two powerful Presa Canarios were "time bombs," and they brought in more than 30 witnesses who said they had been terrorized by the dogs, Bane and Hera, which both outweighed the 110-pound victim.

The defense contended that Knoller and Noel could not have known their animals would kill and that Knoller tried to save Whipple by throwing herself between her neighbor and the enraged Bane. They also disputed the witnesses' accounts of being menaced by the dogs.

The case was a sensation in San Francisco: Whipple, a successful member of the city's gay community, was savagely killed outside her door in exclusive Pacific Heights by an exotic breed known for its ferocity.

Soon word spread that the owners were lawyers who specialized in lawsuits on behalf of inmates. They were also in the process of adopting an inmate, white-supremacist gang member Paul Schneider, who officials said was trying to run a business raising Presa Canarios for use as guard dogs.

The couple acquired the dogs from a farm in 2000 after Schneider complained the animals were being turned into "wusses" there. The dogs' former caretaker later testified she had warned Knoller that Hera was so dangerous it "should have been shot."

After the attack on Jan. 26, 2001, Knoller and Noel defiantly blamed the victim. Noel, who was not present during the attack and was not charged with murder, suggested Whipple may have attracted the dogs' attention with her perfume or even steroids.

"It's not my fault," Knoller said in the TV interview that was played for the jury. "Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have."

The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of concern that the heavy publicity would prevent a fair trial in San Francisco.

Pretrial hearings were explosive, with the prosecutor alleging at one point that Knoller and Noel practiced bestiality with their dogs. Evidence relating to that claim was barred by the judge along with most evidence about the Aryan Brotherhood.

The trial itself was grim: Jurors were shown 77 bloody photos of Whipple's wounds, many blown up to wall size on a movie screen. The prosecutors said the college lacrosse coach had been bitten everywhere except the top of her head and the soles of her feet.

Experts said the 120-pound Bane delivered the fatal wounds and prosecutors said Hera tore at Whipple's clothing during the attack. Both dogs were later destroyed.

Knoller testified for three days, crying, shouting and insisting she never suspected her beloved dogs could be killers.

Her lawyer, Nedra Ruiz, contributed to the courtroom drama by crawling on the floor, kicking the jury box and crying during her opening statement. In closing arguments, she accused prosecutors of trying to "curry favor with the homosexual and gay folks."

Noel did not testify and contended through his lawyer that he had no warning the dogs would kill.