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THE CALIFORNIA DOG-MAULING TRIAL: Why The Community's Opinion Properly Played A Role


Thursday, Jun. 20, 2002

This is Part One of a two-part series on the dog-mauling trial. -- Ed.

On Tuesday, California Superior Court Judge James Warren threw out the murder conviction of Marjorie Knoller. Knoller is the now-infamous owner of the two Presa Canarios who mauled their neighbor, Diane Whipple, to death. The dogs were 100 pounders who were not trained specifically to kill, but who were certainly menacing.

The judge let stand Knoller's (and her husband's) convictions on the lesser charges of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a dangerous animal. Nevertheless, the fact that the murder conviction was thrown out was highly significant. While Knoller's murder conviction had carried a possible sentence of fifteen years to life in prison, the remaining manslaughter charge carries only a maximum four year penalty.

The case has attracted international attention. The defendants, both attorneys, are highly unsympathetic: they have shown little remorse for their role in Whipple's death; they have openly mourned the subsequent killing of their dogs; and they have maintained a bizarre relationship with a dog-breeding operation run by white supremacist prisoners -- one of whom the defendants adopted. Knoller's lawyer's courtroom antics were widely reported (the lawyer has since been replaced).

The case is also interesting because it has publicly displayed a contrast between two important roles in the justice system. On one hand, there is the role of the community, as represented by the grand jury and the trial jury. On the other hand, there are the roles of the executive and the judiciary, as represented by the prosecutor and the judge.

Rarely are charging decisions -- that is, decisions as to which criminal charges, in particular, will be included in the indictment against a given defendant -- subject to much scrutiny. In this case, however, the community played a large role in the charging decision, and that role has itself been the focus of public attention.

The grand jury opted to indict Knoller for second degree murder even though prosecutors did not initially seek the charge. Later, the trial jury convicted Knoller on the same charge. Both juries have been criticized for their actions -- as have the prosecutors who pursued the second degree murder charge. But it is far from clear that the criticism has been deserved.

Murder or Manslaughter?

Granted, the use of the murder charge in this case was unusual. Involuntary manslaughter is the typical charge in those rare cases when pets kill.

The trial jury found also that California's definition of second degree murder was satisfied, because Knoller consciously disregarded a known danger to human life, as that crime requires. Accordingly, in reducing the charges, the judge focused, correctly, on whether the standard was indeed satisfied.

Was it? Consider the strong evidence in support of the jury's finding. Knoller undisputedly had the large, powerful dogs outside while she was alone and they were unmuzzled. Moreover, the government put on evidence of approximately 30 instances in which the dogs had previously behaved aggressively towards others. Testifying witnesses included neighbors, dog walkers, postal workers, and veterinarians.

The defense put on witnesses who testified to the dogs' good behavior -- including Knoller herself. Her credibility was central, since it was her state of mind that the second degree murder definition put directly at issue. Yet Knoller was, to say the least, not very credible.

For example, she refused to acknowledge the many times others reported her dogs' aggressiveness to her. At the end of the trial, the jury was left with a picture of a woman willfully indifferent to her pets' behavior. Based on the evidence, it reasonably found, ultimately, that the information she had, coupled with her refusal to heed it, rose to the level of murder.

Prosecutors or Grand Juries?

Much has been made of the fact that the prosecutor in the case asked the grand jury to indict both defendants for involuntary manslaughter. The grand jury, after hearing the evidence, added the charge of second degree murder, and the prosecution then agreed to go forward on that charge.

The prosecution has been criticized (most recently yesterday, in Trevor Morrison's article in this space) for proceeding to trial on the murder charge. The allegation has been that the grand jury's passions were inflamed, and that the prosecutor simply acquiesced. The allegations are necessarily highly speculative: grand jury proceedings are secret, and the District Attorney's Office has vigorously defended its decision.

There is, in fact, little to criticize. Without engaging in hoary odes to the grand jury, there is no question that it plays a vital role in fashioning charges.

Usually, we learn about that role when the grand jury acts as a check, rejecting charges the prosecution has sought. When that happens, the grand jury is extolled as a vital element of our constitutional system, a vigilant guardian of individual liberty, and a valuable restraint on overly zealous prosecutors. The grand jury's power, at this stage, is unappealable: if a grand jury won't indict, the prosecutor cannot proceed. Prosecutors can theoretically try again, but many prosecutors' offices have strict rules that limit a prosecutor's right to "shop" a case to a different grand jury.

Part of the grand jury's job is to assist the prosecutor in finding the right label -- or labels -- to put on the defendant's conduct. Grand juries are not purely passive bodies: they question witnesses, grill prosecutors about legal issues, and of course, they vote. In all these ways, they help prosecutors understand how the community views a defendant's behavior, which is part of the prosecutor's calculus in fixing a charge. And there is nothing about the process that requires the ratchet to move only one way.

In sum, the grand jury in the Knoller case has been unfairly criticized for going beyond the charges the prosecutor recommended. It only fulfilled conscientiously its role in the system. In Part Two of this series, I will address and evaluate, as well, the actions of the trial jury and judge in the case.

Barton Aronson is currently a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C.; previously, he was an Assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts. Before joining the U.S. Attorney's Office, Mr. Aronson was in private practice in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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