In a criminal courthouse famed for trials that produce media spectacles and strange sideshows, now comes the sordid case of Marjorie Knoller, her husband Robert Noel and their big dog, Bane.
After a year of sensational headlines and national attention, the couple is in court facing charges of murder and manslaughter in the death of Diane Whipple, a neighbor mauled and killed by Bane, a 120-pound Presa Canario.
The gruesome attack occurred last January in the hallway of their apartment building in San Francisco. But the couple's conduct afterward so outraged the city that the trial has been moved to the same Los Angeles courthouse where O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers were tried for murder.
Jury selection has just begun and may take weeks. Hundreds of potential jurors are being screened for bias in the highly publicized case, which may include testimony about bestiality, an imprisoned white supremacist nicknamed "Cornfed," and whether Whipple's perfume drove the ferocious dog mad.
"This trial will have a very, very unbelievable set of circumstances," said Kenneth Phillips, an attorney who specializes in dog-mauling cases. "It's all so extreme, if you turned in a screenplay about it, you'd be fired."
Bane's fate has been decided -- he was put to sleep just hours after the fatal attack. But whether prosecutors can prove that Knoller and Noel should also be held responsible for Whipple's death, because they knew how dangerous the animal was and failed to control him, is hardly clear.
No one has ever been convicted of murder in California for a dog attack. Such cases also are quite rare around the country. But prosecutors contend that what happened to Whipple was much more than a horrible accident.
Whipple, 33, a lacrosse coach at a college near San Francisco, was arriving home with a bag of groceries just as Knoller was leaving her apartment to walk Bane and another Presa Canario in her care, Hera. Police say that Bane, who was leashed, lunged at Whipple without provocation. Knoller lost control of him. The dog, which outweighed Whipple, pounced on her, tore off her clothes, bit her throat and dragged her down the hallway. Bleeding profusely, she was rushed, unconscious, to a local hospital, and died five hours later.
Knoller, 46, has been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Noel, 60, has been charged only with involuntary manslaughter. He was out of town at the time of the attack, but prosecutors say that he also bears some responsibility for the dog's behavior. Whipple's life partner, Sharon Smith, also has filed a civil lawsuit against the couple.
Knoller and Noel, who are both lawyers, have been in jail for nearly a year, unable to post bail that was set at $1 million apiece. The other dog, Hera, who also tore at Whipple's clothing, has not been killed and may be presented as evidence.
But that is only the beginning of the story.
After the attack, investigators learned that Knoller and Noel had been keeping the dogs, rare breeds known for their fierce nature, for Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, 39, an inmate at a maximum-security prison in California. Authorities say that Schneider, who is serving a life sentence for attempted murder, is part of a gang called the Aryan Brotherhood that raises and sells attack dogs. Knoller and Noel had once represented Schneider and became close friends with him. A few days after the attack, for reasons they have not explained, they formally adopted Schneider.
Prosecutors say letters that the couple wrote to Schneider in prison suggest they knew the dogs were vicious, yet enjoyed how they terrified neighbors and pedestrians. In one letter made public during the investigation, Noel refers to Whipple as a "timorous little mousy blonde" and jokes that she had been especially frightened by Bane in an earlier encounter with the massive dog.
The letters, prosecutors say, also suggest that Knoller and Noel may have had inappropriate sexual contact with the dogs. Earlier this month, San Francisco prosecutor James Hammer told San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren, who is presiding at the trial in Los Angeles, that Knoller and Noel had "blurred the boundaries between dog and human." Prosecutors say they may introduce evidence of bestiality to show that the couple's relationships with the dogs was so intense they lost perspective on how dangerous they could be.
Attorneys for the couple, who have called the accusation "specious filth," tried to bar that subject from being introduced at trial. But Warren has ruled that some evidence might be allowed.
Since the attack, Knoller and Noel have infuriated many in San Francisco for another reason: Instead of showing contrition, they have adamantly defended Bane.
In a rambling 18-page letter faxed to the San Francisco district attorney's office, they blamed the victim -- saying Whipple's perfume, or steroids they accused her of taking, may have provoked the dog. Knoller also has said that Whipple, who was small, overreacted to Bane's first move and agitated him.
Although Knoller contends that she tried to stop the attack, prosecutors point out that she did not call 911.
During the trial, prosecutors intend to stress the couple's conduct following the attack, but they still may have difficulty winning a second-degree murder conviction against Knoller.
Phillips said the only precedent for such a verdict came in a Kansas case four years ago involving a woman who had trained Rottweilers as attack dogs then let them escape from her yard and kill an 11-year-old boy waiting for a school bus. A jury found her guilty of second-degree murder.
"They are going to have an uphill battle getting the conviction they want," Phillips said. "It almost never happens in a case like this."
The public outcry over the case led California legislators to toughen punishments for vicious dog attacks and to make a dog's keeper, not just its owner, responsible for its behavior.
The enormous publicity that the case has generated was apparent from the moment jury selection began last week. Most prospective jurors told Warren they were aware of the case, and some expressed firm views about it.
"A young woman lost her life," one elderly woman in the jury pool told the judge. "I feel someone has to account for the death. The dog can't testify."
Potential jurors are being asked to complete a 28-page survey that solicits their opinions on leash laws and dog bites and poses philosophical questions such as, "Do you consider yourself a dog person?"
"Some people have very strong views about dogs," Warren told the jury pool. "Whatever your feelings are have to be set aside."
Opening arguments in the trial are scheduled for Feb. 19, but choosing a jury may take longer than even the attorneys anticipated. Nearly all 280 members in the first of what may be several jury pools told the judge a few days ago that it would be a hardship to serve.
Knoller and Noel sought separate trials, but that request was denied. They are sitting side-by-side in the courtroom.
Nedra Ruiz, Knoller's attorney, said that after 10 months in prison, her client is happy the case has begun and looks forward to testifying. "She feels this is the beginning of a brighter day," Ruiz said.
Special correspondent Jeff Adler contributed to this report.