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Partner rights brought to fore

The focus in the San Francisco dog-mauling case is shifting to a wrongful-death suit filed by the victim's lesbian partner, a legal milestone made possible by a law passed in the wake of the savage attack.

After Diane Whipple's ghastly death last year, the California Legislature enacted a law granting gay partners the same right to sue as spouses or family members. That enabled Whipple's partner, Sharon Smith, to bring a lawsuit against the dogs' keepers.

No trial date has been set.

On Thursday, Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, were convicted of murder and involuntary manslaughter, respectively, for the January 2001 mauling of Whipple by two huge dogs in the hallway outside her San Francisco apartment.

Knoller is believed to be first person in California and the third person in recent U.S. history to be convicted of murder in a dog-mauling case.

Before Whipple's death, state Assembly member Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat, had introduced the legislation granting gays the right to sue. But she said the mauling helped it clear the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis.

"It created a very compelling, real-life image of the consequences of tragedy and the inequities in society," Migden said.

Only California, Hawaii and Vermont grant such status to gays to sue on behalf of their partners, said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay advocacy group.

Other states may follow suit. A key legislator in Connecticut said a gay rights bill being crafted may include a provision granting someone the right to be treated as a crime victim if a gay partner is murdered.

"I think this case certainly did illustrate the lack of legal recognition and the compounded pain that that causes with the lack of legal recognition," said Smith of the Human Rights Campaign.

Some groups, however, are outraged by Smith's legal standing to sue.

"It's unfortunate that Gov. Gray Davis and radical gay activists have already abused and misused this tragic case in their political quest to undermine marriage," said Randy Thomasson, director of Campaign for California Families.

Sharon Smith's lawsuit is the same type family members used to sue O.J. Simpson after his acquittal on charges of murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5-million.

Sharon Smith is seeking unspecified damages and has said any financial award would go to support a nonprofit women's lacrosse foundation in memory of Whipple, 33, who was a college lacrosse coach.

Even before the Legislature acted, a California judge had ruled that Smith's wrongful-death suit should go forward, saying it would violate the state constitution to give legal standing only to surviving spouses.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, one of the law firms behind Smith's suit, said the group soon will seek a trial date in the civil case.

Ruth Herring, one of the group's directors, said California's legislation "was an acknowledgment that Sharon and Diane were actually family members like any family spouse would have been."

"This is not all about money, it's about justice," Herring said.

Knoller, 46, faces 15 years to life in prison when she is sentenced May 10 for second-degree murder. Noel, 60, faces up to four years on each of two charges. Only Knoller, who was walking the dogs at the time of the attack, was charged with murder.