Richard H. Polsky, Ph.D.

Website author

Expert Witness for the defense

Animal Behavior Counseling Services, Inc.

Los Angeles, CA.

Pre-trial Developments

The Indictment

In March, 2001, Knoller and Noel were charged with manslaughter along with a relatively new California felony charge of owning a dangerous animal that killed someone. Surprisingly, the Grand Jury also returned an indictment against Knoller for second-degree murder.  Both defendants testified before the Grand Jury. They denied that their dogs had ever acted aggressively to anyone.

Extensive publicity

In the months leading up to the trial, the case generated a substantial amount of national publicity. Stories appeared about the defendant’s ties to the prison inmates and the supposed acts of bestiality. The lesbian partner of Whipple, 36-year old banking executive Sharon Smith, made news when she became the first person to be granted the right to file a lawsuit for wrongful death of a gay partner. This event was hailed as a victory for the gay rights movement the and Smith became a heroine in her own right.

After the Grand Jury hearings, there was a vicious dog hearing or Hera. Unlike Bane, Hera was not destroyed but kept alive and placed in the San Francisco SPCA animal shelter for behavioral testing. Testing was conducted by animal behavior experts for the prosecution and the results from the testing were used to support the belief that Hera was vicious by nature and that it was likely that she was also involved in the mauling. Subsequent to the hearing, bitter squabbling ensued between the prosecution and defense over the fate of Hera. The defense wanted Hera kept alive so that they could conduct their own behavioral testing outside the shelter environment. In spite of the lawsuits filed to stop Hera’s destruction, she was eventually destroyed in January 2002.

Next, the defense argued that a fair trial could not be conducted in San Francisco. Based on a costly study conducted by defense experts, findings showed that the vast majority people in the Bay area felt the defendants were guilty. The trial was therefore moved to Los Angeles. James Warren, a San Francisco judge, appointed to the bench by former Republican governor Pete Wilson, was assigned the case.

Next, Knoller fired her first attorney, a public defender, and then hired the outspoken Nedra Ruiz,, an associate in the San Francisco criminal defense firm of controversial Tony Serra.  Serra was portrayed in the 1989 mov True Believer. Serra could not represent Knoller because he was busy defending former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson. Previously, Serra along with Ruiz, represented a Santa Cruz man convicted of second-degree murder for killing his neighbor and then burning the body in the backyard. Serra has been quoted as saying: “My subsidence is drugs and murder … I’ll try any political case that comes along. If you kill a cop, I’ll pay to take the case.”

Finally, just before the start of trial, an article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in which Knoller, during a prison interview, gave yet another version of the events in the hallway. Prior to that California Lawyer  published an article detailing the personal lives and professional pursuits of Noel and Knoller.

Pre-trial rulings and jury selection

In a significant ruling prior to the start of trial, Warren excluded the possibility of the prosecution introducing evidence suggesting acts of bestiality by the defendants. The defense obviously wanted to keep this out because of its strong prejudicial nature.

Another pre-trial ruling pertained to the prosecution’s use of a video showing the behavioral testing on Hera in the animal shelter. The behavioral expert for the prosecution opined that the results from this testing clearly demonstrated that Hera’s was dangerous. On the other hand, the defense through the testimony of Dr. Polsky, argued that results from the tests were invalid, in part, because they did not adhere to established scientific standards. Nevertheless, Judge Warren ruled in favor of the prosecution saying that it would be up to the jury to decide what weight they would give to this evidence. As it turned out, the prosecution never introduced the evidence from Hera’s behavioral inspection at trial, probably because it was too inconclusive.

In another ruling, Warren refused to grant separate trials for the defendants and later, during trial, he went even further by ruling that evidence pertaining to one defendant applied to the other. Warren ruled that the prosecution would be allowed to argue that Noel was criminally negligent because he allowed Knoller to take Bane out in public (i.e. up to the rooftop on the day of the incident).

The jury was chosen from over a pool of 800 potential jurors. A 29-page jury questionnaire  was used which covered aspects of dog behavior and jurors’ familiarity with dogs. Seven men and five women were finally chosen. Most jury members were dog owners and a few even had negative encounters with dogs.