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A dog owner who knows the animal is a potential killer and exposes other people to the danger may be guilty of murder for a fatal attack, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in a ruling that could reinstate a woman's murder conviction for the mauling death of her neighbor in a San Francisco apartment building. In a unanimous decision, the court ordered a Superior Court judge to consider restoring a jury's second-degree murder conviction of Marjorie Knoller in the January 2001 mauling of Diane Whipple.

The trial judge reduced Knoller's conviction to involuntary manslaughter, saying the defendant hadn't known her 140-pound Presa Canario was likely to kill someone. A state appeals court overruled the judge and said a defendant who knows he or she is subjecting someone to a danger of serious injury can be guilty of murder if the victim dies.

On Thursday, the state's high court rejected both the lower-court standards and said Knoller, or any other defendant responsible for unintentional but fatal injuries, can be convicted of murder if they acted with "conscious disregard of the danger to human life.''

A new San Francisco judge, replacing the now-retired trial judge, will now apply that standard, review the trial record and decide whether Knoller is guilty of murder or manslaughter.

"This is a great victory for the prosecution and the victims of a horrendous crime,'' San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris said. "We believe the defendant should be sentenced as originally mandated by the jury."

Knoller, 51, who now lives in Florida, was paroled in 2004 after serving most of a four-year sentence for manslaughter. If her murder conviction is reinstated, she must return to prison for a term of 15 years to life.

Her attorney Dennis Riordan praised the ruling and said Knoller believes the new judge "will again find that the evidence in her case is clearly insufficient to support a second-degree murder conviction.''

But Deputy Attorney General Amy Haddix, the state's lawyer, said Knoller was the "poster child'' for a murder case under the new standards. Haddix said the evidence showed that Knoller had taken a dangerous, aggressive and unmuzzled dog, which she knew she could not control, into an area where it was likely to encounter people.

"I don't think that's any different than driving a car at high speeds when highly intoxicated, which has long been recognized as an act that knowingly endangers human life,'' Haddix said.

Knoller and her husband and law partner, Robert Noel, were keeping two Presa Canario dogs for their owner, a state prison inmate whom they later adopted. On the day of the attack, Knoller took the male dog, Bane, to the roof of her apartment building at Pacific Avenue and Fillmore Street, then returned to the sixth-floor hallway where Whipple, a 33-year-old lacrosse coach, was entering her apartment with two bags of groceries.

Bane charged at Whipple and jumped on her. The dog's 100-pound mate, Hera, bolted out of the couple's apartment and may have joined the attack. Medical examiners found that Whipple suffered 77 wounds, including a fatal puncture to the neck.

Noel was convicted of manslaughter for leaving the dogs with his wife, and was paroled in 2004. Their trial was transferred to Los Angeles after the couple's pretrial statements generated widespread hostility.

In interviews after the attack, Knoller said she had tried to protect Whipple and suggested that her neighbor was responsible for her own death by remaining in the hallway. At her trial, she described Bane as "gentle and loving and affectionate'' and denied having been warned that the dogs were dangerous.

But the Supreme Court said Thursday that there had been about 30 incidents before the attack on Whipple in which the dogs were out of control or threatening humans and other dogs. In response to neighbors' complaints, the couple "responded callously, if at all,'' the court said.

The justices also noted that Knoller and Noel had agreed with the prisoner who owned the dogs that they would name a dog-breeding enterprise "Dog-O-War.''

After the jury verdict, Superior Court Judge James Warren said he was convinced Knoller had been aware that the dogs were dangerous. But he said she was innocent of murder because she had not known her conduct posed a "high probability of death."

As an additional ground for reducing Knoller's conviction, Warren said he thought Noel, charged only with manslaughter, was the guiltier of the two because he had left his wife alone with the dogs, despite knowing that she could not control them.

The now-retired Warren applied the wrong legal standards to both questions, the state's high court said Thursday.

A defendant who knowingly subjects others to a risk of death can be guilty of murder, regardless of whether the conduct created a high probability of death, Justice Joyce Kennard said in the unanimous ruling. She also said judges generally can't second-guess prosecutors' decisions on whether defendants should face different charges.


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