Finding Meaning in Diane Whipple’s Death

If we focus on the strange facts of this case, and the horrible way Whipple perished, we will learn very little of practical importance, and therefore her death will not have the meaning that it otherwise should. Instead of concentrating on the macabre aspects of this terrible tragedy, let us look at it in its proper context.

There is a dog bite epidemic in the United States. Almost one million Americans receive medical treatment for dog bites every year. In a 10-year period from 1986 to 1996, the number of dogs rose by 2% while the number of bites requiring medical attention increased by 33%. Perhaps this death can be the inspiration to change some laws and thereby reduce the number of dog attacks in this country:

Attorney Kenneth Phillips has described the 10 things that must be done to end this epidemic. See Preventing Dog Bites. These methods are superior to the criminal laws that have been suggested. It is more effective in the long run to eliminate a problem than to criminalize it. Worse yet is treating a horrible death as though it were nothing more than a horror story, and not taking steps to improve the situation. Whipple’s death was certainly horrible but we can make it meaningful if we do something to lessen the chances that it will happen again. 

Like the rest of us, the California Legislature has observed the Whipple prosecutors struggle for years with the existing law pertaining to deaths caused by dangerous dogs. Certainly the unusual length of the Court of Appeal’s decision in 2005 was a clear indication of the serious and complex issues that raised by this homicide. The questions raised in the Supreme Court hearing underscored the difficulty of using existing laws to make the punishment fit the crime, when the crime consists of the irresponsible ownership of a dangerous dog. But what has the legislature done to correct this situation? The answer is nothing. Unlike other states, such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, there still is no California law that defines second degree murder in the specific context of a canine-inflicted homicide. California dog owners continue to be exposed to a potential murder conviction without a clear standard for their behavior. Such a standard would help stem the tide of the dog bite epidemic. Such a law would honor Diane Whipple’s death.

Whipple’s death also rasies the issue of breed bans. In the United States, there are very few places that ban certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls and Presa Canarios. California actually has a law that makes it illegal to ban breeds. Consider this, however: in urban areas, goats and chickens are illegal, but big, powerful dogs that were bred for working in the fields are not. The Presa Canario, for example, was bred to herd cattle and do guard duty. What possible reason justifies allowing such a dog within city limits — and in an 800-square-foot apartment like the one Noel and Knoller lived in? Many authorities say that the big, powerful dogs do not belong in crowded cities. This would apply to all such dogs, and constitute a breed ban applicable to a number of breeds.

There are lesser measures that can be taken against certain dogs, which would not amount to banning their breed, but which would probably reduce injuries. Former criminals and chronic dog law offenders can be forbidden to own the bigger, more powerful dogs. Muzzles might be required on certain dogs. Insurance could be mandatory for certain breeds of dog. Measures like these are referred to as “breed specific legislation,” but they don’t even have to be breed specific if the laws apply to all of the bigger, more powerful dogs. (Read more about this at Preventing Dog Bites.)

Society needs to look again at the usual prejudice against breed specific legislation. If dog owners really are entitled to have any kind of dog that they want, including Presa Canario dogs, and if dog owners can have any kind of dog in any kind of surroundings, including a crowded urban area and even a crowded apartment building like that in which Knoller, Noel and Whipple lived, then why was it fair for the Whipple prosecutor to condemn Knoller and Noel for owning those dogs? The Whipple trial was in many ways a breed specific prosecution. We should not permit this double standard to exist. Either we are for breed-based restrictions, or we are against them. We cannot tell dog owners that they can get any kind of dog that they want, but “throw the book at them” for having those dogs. It is hypocritical and will do nothing to end the dog bite epidemic.

It should also be noted that Whipple’s death — specifically, the wrongful death lawsuit of Sharon Smith — raised issues that affect not only gays and lesbians, but mothers, fathers and other heterosexual people of the state.  The resolution of those issues added another level of meaning to the horrible death of Diane Whipple.