Anatomy of a Murder

Letter published in The Recorder (San Francisco Legal Newspaper) March 2002.

Anatomy of a Murder

Background. Marjorie Knoller was convicted by a Los Angeles jury of second degree murder in a gruesome dog mauling case (during which two of Knoller’s dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in San Francisco). In a case that drew national attention, evidence linked Knoller and her lawyer husband to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and an attack dog training program. The defense lawyer for Knoller, Nedra Ruiz, got down on her hands and knees during portions of an emotional final argument.

After the murder conviction, many legal experts questioned whether failure to control an attack dog could sustain more than a manslaughter conviction (and the trial judge eventually reduced the charge).

The Knoller verdict should be no surprise for that small cadre of drunk driving attorneys who have had the distinct displeasure of defending a DUI murder case based on the theory of People vs. Watson [30 Cal 3rd 290 (1981)] and its progeny. Reckless conduct with a dangerous instrumentality (like a car or homicidal war dog) coupled with the actual, subjective appreciation of the risk posed by losing control can amount to wanton conduct, conscious disregard for human life, an annoyed jury, and fifteen to life. Note in Watson and the later cases there were prior accidents or near misses that supported a finding of implied malice.

As the Court of Appeals later observed in People vs. Olivas [172 Cal.App.3rd 984 (1985)] , “The distinction between ‘conscious disregard for life’ and ‘conscious indifference to the consequences’ is subtle but nevertheless logical. … in everyday language, the state of mind of a person who acts with conscious disregard for life is, ‘I know my conduct is dangerous to others, but I don’t care if someone is hurt or killed.’ The state of mind of the person who acts with conscious indifference to the consequences is simply, ‘I don’t care what happens.’”

Knoller’s fate hinged on that fine difference.

I am reluctant to criticize the defense in any difficult case, but I can’t avoid the observation that, when faced with bad facts and community passion, the better defense strategy is to lower rather than raise the emotional temperature. An appeal to reason and logic is best delivered while retaining composure. Apparently the jury believed that both the Watson test was “on all fours.” It didn’t help the trial dynamics that the same could be said of Ms. Knoller’s counsel.

Jay B. Gaskill

(Former Alameda County Public Defender)

Copyright ã 2002 Jay B. Gaskill

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