Jan. 30, 2002 -- The domestic partner of a woman mauled to death by two dogs in the doorway of her San Francisco apartment will be allowed to testify about conversations the two women had after the victim was bitten by one of the dogs six weeks before the fatal attack when the case comes to trial.
Judge James Warren ruled during an evidentiary hearing in the case Tuesday that the conversations would be admissible, which is seen as a boost to prosecutors who hope to show that the couple who owned the dogs — and are charged with criminal responsibility for the woman's death — knew that the dogs were vicious and did not do enough to control them.
Sharon Smith, the partner of victim Diane Whipple, took the stand and described how Whipple told her about being bitten by the dogs some six weeks before the fatal attack on Jan. 26, 2001, and how Whipple warned the couple who owned the dogs that they needed to control them.
"The significance is huge, I believe, because since that dog bite in early December she was incredibly fearful of the dogs," Smith said. "She acted a different way, and it put them on notice, too."
Defense attorneys for Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who lived next door to Whipple, wanted Smith's testimony kept out because they said it was hearsay and unreliable as evidence.
Because the judge disagreed, Smith will be allowed to testify about a phone call in early December 2000 when Whipple told her she had just been bitten and about a conversation the two had when Smith got home that same evening.
Smith told the judge that Whipple had puncture wounds in her left hand that day, and said she told Noel, "You need to control your dogs."
The testimony will help the prosecution make their case to show that the defendants knew their dogs were vicious.
"Some of the central issues in this case will be whether or not the defendants knew of the dangerousness of the dogs and whether or not they acted in total disregard of that," San Francisco prosecutor James Hammer said.
Bane, the male dog who was determined to be the primary aggressor, was destroyed immediately following the attack. Today, his mate, Hera, was destroyed by lethal injection after being held for a year by city animal control officials.
A Tangled Trail
Jury selection began last week in the trial, which is being held in Los Angeles because of the amount of publicity the case received in San Francisco. Roughly 800 potential jurors were sworn in and given 29-page questionnaires that focused on their attitudes toward dogs and how much they knew about the case. Jury selection is expected to take up to two weeks.
Though Knoller and Noel were able to convince a judge that the trial should not be held in San Francisco, they failed to win separate trials or the right to keep evidence related to their relationships with the dogs out of the trial.
Both are charged with involuntary manslaughter and keeping a vicious dog. Knoller, who was with the dogs at the time that Whipple was attacked, also faces a charge of second-degree murder.
Knoller could face a minimum of 15 years to life in prison if she is convicted of the murder charge. Noel faces a maximum of four years in prison if he is found guilty.
The case could involve evidence that the couple, San Francisco lawyers who got the Presa Canario dogs from a pair of convicts they defended and befriended, engaged in "inappropriate sexual conduct" with the animals, according to prosecutors.
"They blurred the boundaries between dogs and humans, with fatal consequences," Hammer testified during a hearing earlier this month.
Warren ruled on Jan. 15 that any evidence related to sexual activity would only be admitted if prosecutors can show how it affected the way the dogs behaved.
"If there is sex that is relevant in this case, either with dogs or with humans, it would be scrutinized outside the presence of the media," Warren said at that hearing.
Today, Warren ruled that television cameras would be allowed in the courtroom for opening arguments, scheduled for Feb. 19, as well as for closing arguments and the verdict.
Placing the Blame
At a grand jury hearing in March, Hammer testified that the dog Bane "put his head in Miss Whipple's crotch" and responded to her the way he would have to a "bitch in heat."
The allegations of "inappropriate sexual conduct" are just one of the strange turns the case has taken since Whipple was attacked as she tried to get into her apartment with her groceries a year ago.
First Noel made a series of bold statements to the media in which he seemed to blame Whipple, a university lacrosse coach, for somehow bringing the attack on herself, either by perfume she might have been wearing or by using steroids — a claim that was never substantiated.
Noel, 59, and Knoller, 45, said they had gotten the dogs from a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, whom they had taken as their legally adopted son. Schneider and another inmate, both members of the Aryan Brotherhood who are serving life without parole, were allegedly trying to operate a business from behind bars raising attack dogs for illegal drug labs.
Schneider and the other inmate had first put the two dogs in the care of another woman, who said she could not keep them because they had grown too vicious.
Documents found in Schneider's cell, including letters and nude photographs of Knoller, provided evidence of sexual activity between the couple and Bane, according to an investigator in the San Francisco District Attorney's office.
In July, the two inmates filed a motion claiming that they should be the targets of the wrongful death suit that Smith had filed against Noel and Knoller.
Finally, the couple tried to get their trials separated, claiming that statements each had made could prejudice the jury against the other, but Warren denied the motion.
"There isn't anything one way or the other that will show that one defendant is prejudiced by the other," Warren said when he ruled on the motion last week. "This is a classic case for a joint trial."
ABCNEWS affiliate KGO contributed to this report.