Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

10 years later: The San Francisco dog-mauling case's lasting LGBT legacy


Sharon Enlowsmith, left, joined NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell at a fundraiser for Enlowsmith's civil court case in May 2001, just four months after the death of Diane Alexis Whipple. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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It was one of the most publicized criminal cases in San Francisco history. Ten years ago this week, on January 26, 2001, two Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed Diane Alexis Whipple, 33, outside her Pacific Heights apartment. The case made headlines around the world. Only the terrorist attacks of September 11 later that year took the story off the front page.

Beyond the media circus, for gay-rights advocates the case helped galvanize support for domestic partner rights. Whipple's surviving partner, Sharon Smith, put a human face on what otherwise was an abstract concept of same-sex partner rights.

"I think for a lot of Americans, and a lot of people in California, Diane Whipple might have been the first lesbian, the first LGBT person, whose human story they heard," said Jim Hammer, the former San Francisco assistant district attorney who successfully prosecuted the case against the dogs' caretakers, Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel.

Hammer, along with then-prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle, convinced a jury that the couple was culpable because they knew their dogs were dangerous but did little to mitigate the danger. Noel was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Knoller, who was with the dogs during the attack, was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, noted that Smith, who changed her last name to Enlowsmith after committing herself to a new partner, struck a chord with the public and the legislature.

"The human face that Sharon put forward in the mix into what truly was an unspeakable horror, I think, moved people in ways that nothing else could have done," said Kendell.

Kendell, along with private attorney Michael Cardoza, helped fight for Enlowsmith's rights as a surviving partner.

In July 2001, Enlowsmith made gay rights history when San Francisco Superior Court Judge A. James Robertson allowed her to proceed with her wrongful death lawsuit although she was not a legal spouse.

Kendell said it was not a case they had expected to win.

"We knew it was an uphill battle," she said, "but we knew if there was any case and any plaintiff that could win as a same-sex partner for the right to sue for wrongful death it would be this case and it would be [Enlowsmith]."

Enlowsmith also successfully lobbied in support of a bill authored by then-Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) to bolster the rights of domestic partners.

"[Enlowsmith] is such a lovely person that when she testified before the A

Diane Alexis Whipple was a lacrosse coach at St. Mary's College at the time of her death in 2001.
ssembly Judiciary Committee, people were crying," said Kendell.

"I think she is not only instrumental in getting greater domestic partnership legislation in California but in softening people to who we are and how we are denied equality under the law," Kendell added. "I think most people had no idea you couldn't sue for wrongful death."

The California Supreme Court last month rejected Knoller's latest appeal but her attorney, Dennis Riordan, had promised to take her appeals through federal court.

Hammer told the B.A.R. that although it is impossible to know what a federal court will do, he is confident that Knoller's trial was fair and the verdict was correct. He noted that because of a change of venue, Noel and Knoller were convicted by a group of jurors from Los Angeles who were very diverse.

"It's not like they were all some kind of cabal from San Francisco," Hammer said.

Robert Noel, shown during the closing arguments of the trial in March 2002. Pool photo

Noel, who was paroled in 2003, told the B.A.R. last week that Knoller remains hopeful that her case will eventually be overturned on appeal. He said he visits her every other week or so and is pleased that she has finally received counseling that she needs to cope with the post-traumatic stress she still suffers as a result of the incident. In a previous interview with the B.A.R. , Knoller has said she is very sorry for what has happened but has reiterated that it was an accident. She is serving a 15-years-to-life sentence in state prison. Noel still lives in the Bay Area and works as a baker. Both had been attorneys.

Kendell said Enlowsmith is no longer in a partnership with Michelle Enlowsmith but that they both have retained their joint names and that they co-parent their three children, who are living with Sharon. Enlowsmith did not respond to a request for comment sent via Facebook.

Said Kendell, "She is doing great and the kids are doing great and she's still an incredible person and now a remarkable parent."

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