Diane Whipple: Was It Murder? Six Years Later And No End In Sight

Today the California Supreme Court heard arguments in the Diane Whipple case. This is the lady who was killed in San Francisco by dogs that were owned by Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, two of the most irreponsible dog owners in the USA. A jury found Knoller guilty of murder but the trial judge threw out the conviction. The hearing was about whether the judge made the correct decision.

I was present for the mind-numbing debate about the so-called “objective test” and “subjective test” used in California to decide whether a homicide is simply accidental or reaches the level of second degree murder (i.e., homicide as the result of recklessness). The latter carries a penalty of 15 years to life in this state.

Six years after Ms. Whipple’s gruesome death, I am sorry to say that this looks like an example of the old legal addage, “an easy case makes for bad law.” Obviously Ms. Whipple’s death cried out for the maximum punishment, but California prosecutors have been forced to try to fit a round peg into a square hole, because the necessary laws were not in place. Stretching the law to accomodate this prosecution requires the help of the California Supreme Court.

In other words, to make the punishment fit the crime, the crime has to be redefined. The net has to be widened because this state does not have a law that provides adequate punishment for dog owners whose reckless disregard of their neighbors’ safety results in a neighbor’s death.

Knoller’s attorney said outside of court that if the ruling goes against Knoller, the case should be referred to a lower court for further proceedings. If those proceedings result in a murder conviction, then Knoller would have the right to appeal that conviction. She has not been appealing it all this while — it was the district attorney who was appealing the ruling by the trial judge.

In other words, this is far from over. As the courts diddle with legal definitions, more people are getting killed by dogs each year. Wouldn’t it be better to take all this energy and invest it in a clearly drafted, stronger law? This is a job for the California Legislature, not the courts. I have written about preventing dog bites, and am available in California, as I was in Tennessee last week, to get new, adequate, clearly written laws passed in the legislature.