Updated: Knoller again denied parole in SF dog-maul case

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023
Share this Post:
Marjorie Knoller sat at a table during her parole hearing on February 15. Photo: Courtesy Board of Parole Hearings.
Marjorie Knoller sat at a table during her parole hearing on February 15. Photo: Courtesy Board of Parole Hearings.

A state parole panel denied freedom late Wednesday for Marjorie Knoller, the woman convicted of second-degree murder in connection with the fatal dog-mauling of her neighbor, lesbian Diane Whipple, in the hallway of their Pacific Heights apartment building in 2001.

At the conclusion of a nearly four-hour hearing that ended just before 6:30 p.m., the two-member panel of the Board of Parole Hearings said Knoller, 67, presented a danger to society if released and cited her prison record, which included two disciplinary actions against her that included biting a correctional officer in 2016 and refusing to change rooms in 2020.

Knoller showed no emotion after the panel's decision.

In 2002, a jury convicted Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, both attorneys in San Francisco, of involuntary manslaughter. Knoller, who was with the couple's two Presa Canario dogs during the gruesome 10-minute attack on January 26, 2001, was also convicted of second-degree murder. Prosecutors argued that the couple knew their dogs were dangerous but failed to mitigate the danger.

Knoller was allowed to speak at the hearing. The panel also heard from three people who were close to Whipple They spoke emotionally as they told the panel why Knoller should stay incarcerated. Whipple's former partner, Sharon Smith, as well as Whipple's aunt, Roberta Whipple, and Cayce Kelly, the wife of Whipple's brother, Colin Kelly, spoke. The hearing was supposed to start at 11:30 a.m. but was delayed by three hours. No explanation was given for the delay. Cayce Kelly said that her husband was too upset to speak by the time the hearing got underway. She said his sister never leaves his thoughts and at times the grief is overwhelming.

The San Francisco District Attorney's office formally opposed parole and Allison Macbeth, assistant chief attorney at the DA's office, told the panel that Knoller represents a threat to the community and has not taken responsibility for her actions that led to Whipple's murder.

"The inmate does not consider the consequences of her actions at the expense of the well-being of others," Macbeth said.

When asked by the parole commissioners if she would own a dog if released, Knoller, immediately responded with an emphatic "No."

When asked about the devastation caused by Whipple's death, Knoller responded, "I've always felt responsible for Diane's death, in terms of not being able to prevent it or help do more to prevent (the male dog) Bane from doing what he did and stripping her completely naked in that hallway. But Diane seems to have gotten lost and her loss seems to have gotten lost in the publicity that ensued regarding this incident."

Knoller said that if released, she would first go to Sacramento where she would live in transitional housing and then eventually move to Reno, Nevada, because it held good memories for her. She said she would like to work as a lobbyist to protect the rights of both prisoners and guards, work that she did with her husband before she was arrested.

While incarcerated, Knoller was convicted of misdemeanor assault for biting and kicking a guard and hitting a nurse during a medical treatment in 2016. Knoller said that she was unconscious at the time and has no recall of doing that. Knoller's attorney, Katey Gilbert, later said that no prison staff member was injured in the assault and that everyone returned to work immediately afterward. Knoller said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the dog-mauling and she likely instinctively reacted because she doesn't like being touched.

Knoller said that she was disciplined for refusing to change rooms in 2020 because the room to which she was being transferred wasn't ADA compliant with the railings she needed to avoid falls. Gilbert later referred to that as "civil disobedience."

Victim impact statements

During a time for victim impact statements, Smith fought back tears as she told the panel, "There's no way to measure the full impact of that loss. It is with deep sadness that I share with you some of the impact this tragedy has had on my life. For years I was in shock. Much of my life became unrecognizable," she said.

After the hearing Smith told the Bay Area Reporter that like Whipple's brother, the delay in the hearing was tough for her. All of the participants in the meeting spoke remotely through an internet conference call. Smith said she rented a conference room for the day because she didn't want to have to speak from her home or workplace and was ready by 9 a.m. for the hearing that didn't start until 2:30 p.m. She said she felt a weight off her shoulders when the board denied parole. She added that she was concerned that because of Knoller's age, the board would grant her parole.

The case became an important touchstone for gay rights, thanks to Smith's efforts. In August 2001, she was allowed to proceed with a civil wrongful death case against Noel, Knoller, and their landlord. It was the first time that a same-sex partner was allowed to sue for wrongful death, a right that previously applied only to married couples. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Knoller has served over 17 years in prison in two separate prison stints separated by four years of freedom. In 2002, now-retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren threw out Knoller's second-degree conviction during a hearing three months after the conviction.

"I believe unfortunately, Mr. Noel and Ms. Knoller, that you are the most despised couple in the city," Warren told the couple in open court at the time. "I don't believe anyone likes you."

"In the eyes of the people, both defendants are guilty of murder, in the eyes of the law, they are not," Warren said.

The judge explained his decision directly addressing Knoller, "There was one time on the stand Ms. Knoller when I truly believed what you said. You broke down totally in the middle of an unscripted answer and instead of crying, you actually got mad. And you said you had no idea this dog could do what he did and you pounded the table."

In 2008, now-retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard reinstated Knoller's second-degree murder conviction, ordering her to be taken into custody immediately.

Knoller's parole attorney cited Warren's words in her closing appeal to the parole commissioners.

Knoller was stone-faced, showing no emotion as the parole board told her that they were denying her parole. When she was allowed to speak at the beginning of the hearing, Knoller's voice choked with emotion when she told the commissioners that she didn't learn that Noel had died until three months after he his passing.

The parole board told Knoller that she would be eligible for parole again in three years. She was last denied parole four years ago, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Noel was paroled in 2003 after serving a little more than two years, as the B.A.R. previously reported. The B.A.R. reported in November 2018 that it had learned that Noel died of heart failure June 22, 2018, his 77th birthday, in a nursing home in La Jolla, about 12 miles north of downtown San Diego. His ashes were scattered off the San Diego County coast.

Updated, 2/26/23: This story has been updated.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.