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During the seven weeks since San Francisco attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller were arrested for the dog-mauling death of Diane Whipple, they have remained in jail because they can’t make bail. It appears that their law practice, which in recent years had focused on representing correctional officers accused of wrongdoing, was not lucrative. Before they were locked up, Noel and Knoller had been devoting much of their time to battling Del Norte County prosecutors and the California Department of Corrections. Together with the guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, they attempted to deter local and federal authorities from bringing widespread indictments against the Pelican Bay State Prison officer ranks. In those efforts they displayed the same sort of ruthless tactics that have attracted so much scorn in the Whipple tragedy. During nearly six hours of interviews in the San Francisco jail, Noel and Knoller are vague about how they’ve been making a living. It’s doubtful their guard clients had the resources to pay hourly fees. Roy Alvarado, a former Pelican Bay guard who hired the couple to file a RICO claim against prosecutors and investigators looking into abuses at Pelican Bay, says he paid a $750 retainer and understood that the couple would apply for statutory fees if they were successful. Noel claims they had other paying corporate clients, but is vague about the details. Knoller explains that they spent a lot of their own funds to support their practice. Noel’s career started on a more auspicious path, including six years at the Department of Justice’s Tax Division in Washington, D.C., and a three-year stint as an associate in the San Diego office of Rogers & Wells. The 1969 graduate of Baltimore Law School started his own practice in San Francisco in 1988, popping up as counsel in a few commercial cases. Knoller joined him that same year. She got her law degree in 1983 from University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento but didn’t become a member of the California Bar until 1992. She is vague about her work before that time, noting that she was dealing with a family illness. Several lawyers who have appeared opposite Noel say that he can be affable and decent in person. “The times I’ve had interactions with him face to face he’s pretty cordial,” says Geoffrey Beaty, who has represented defendants in the RICO cases brought by Noel and Knoller. “On the spectrum, he’s near the pleasant end. But when it comes to writing, his letters are confrontational and insulting.” Few have much to say about Knoller, who stayed in the background. “She seemed more like his paralegal than his partner,” says one lawyer. In person, Knoller is more subdued than Noel. She makes a special point when talking about certain events to note that she is not alleging a conspiracy. Noel isn’t so cautious, frequently dropping references to mysterious plots by their enemies. He claims that their computers were tampered with, that a spike was planted in their car tire, that a dog owned by one of their guard clients, E. Michael Powers, was cut and poisoned, and that he and Knoller have been under surveillance by the California Department of Corrections for years. He reveals that they always use a rental car when on business to try to elude CDC detection. “We do not want them to know what kind of car we’re driving.” He also freely flings mud at some of their adversaries in the Pelican Bay actions. He asserts that a guard was having an affair with a prosecutor. He labels one convicted rapist who was targeted for an attack at Pelican Bay State Prison a “scum bag rapo.” And he calls Pelican Bay’s administration “an absolute cesspool,” declaring, “A lot of good, conscientious men and women work there, but the rest of the place smells like a whorehouse.” FEDERAL PROSECUTION Beginning in 1997, Noel and Knoller had taken on the criminal defense of former Pelican Bay State Prison guard Jose Garcia, who had been charged with abusing inmates. Garcia was the first guard to face charges under a campaign to clean up excessive force and corruption at the troubled maximum-security institution. That same year the couple also started bringing a string of RICO actions on behalf of Garcia and other guards who were under investigation, naming as defendants the Del Norte district attorney who prosecuted Garcia and others connected with the investigation. But their efforts weren’t successful. In early 1998 Garcia was convicted of setting up the assault of a convicted child molester. Noel and Knoller received only $25,000 in fees for Garcia’s case, paid by the defendant’s friends and family and the CCPOA’s legal defense fund. And the RICO suits were quickly dismissed. Numerous federal civil rights cases they filed for other correctional officers, mostly against the CDC, likewise didn’t go far. After Garcia’s conviction in Del Norte County, Noel and Knoller’s crusade for accused prison guards moved to San Francisco federal court. In June 1999 the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California announced its first indictment out of its probe into guard abuses at Pelican Bay. The defendant was David Lewis, who was one of the guards who had earlier hired Noel to file a RICO suit. Lewis chose Noel for his criminal defense. Lewis was accused of conspiring with inmates to set up an attack on Harry Long, a 5-foot-6-inch, 270-pound prisoner who was believed to be a child molester. In 1994 Lewis shot Long in the chest with a high-powered rifle after another inmate started a fight with Long in an outdoor prison yard. (It turned out that prison records incorrectly identified Long as a child molester.) Long survived, but part of his lung had to be removed. The CCPOA legal defense fund agreed to pay $25,000 for Noel and Knoller’s fees for Lewis’ defense. In early February 2000, right before Lewis’ trial began, Noel met with union chief counsel Benjamin Sybesma and others from the union and the defense fund to ask for more money. This time he got another $25,000. At trial, the government painted guard Lewis as a white racist who hated blacks as well as child molesters. Noel argued that the shooting had been within prison policy, a position that was supported by a prison “shooting review” report that found that the action was justified. The government maintained that the report was part of a corrupt, prison administration whitewash. But Noel couldn’t get the report admitted into evidence. Noel and Knoller didn’t have any more success defending Lewis than they did with Garcia. In February 2000 a jury convicted Lewis of depriving Long of his civil rights and using a firearm during a violent crime. He was sentenced to seven years and nine months in state prison. Noel made a motion for a new trial but didn’t show up for the hearing. The motion was denied. Lewis’ conviction is now on appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the convicted guard has a new legal team (paid for by the union’s legal defense fund). Lewis’ conviction didn’t end the federal government’s probe. A week later the U.S. Attorney announced the indictment of Garcia (who was already serving time from his state conviction) and guard Powers, who had been placed on administrative leave. The two men were accused of setting up attacks on seven inmates at Pelican Bay, contributing to the death of one. This time, neither was represented by Noel or Knoller. Throughout the rest of last year, Noel and Knoller continued litigating their remaining civil lawsuits against the CDC, which consisted mostly of employment grievances. Their work was disrupted last fall when one of Noel’s fingers was nearly severed in a dog fight involving Bane and Hera, the dogs they were taking care of for inmate Paul Schneider. In court papers asking for an extension in one case, Noel described how a dog attacked him and his pets on Crissy Field, a national park in San Francisco. He did not specify which dog bit him. In pleadings, Noel recounted the problems this injury caused, using a level of detail bordering on the inappropriate. “I am unable to deal with the unbuttoning, unzipping, buttoning and re-zipping necessary to use restroom facilities,” Noel informed the court. “Because of this — except on a few occasions when my wife was along and available to assist, if necessary — I have limited my attire to sweat pants which require no buttoning or zippering.” Later, after Whipple’s death, Noel would advance a theory to explain the Crissy Field dog attack: It was staged by his nemesis, the California Department of Corrections. THE ADOPTION Around this time, Noel and Knoller were making arrangements to adopt Schneider. Their relationship to this Aryan Brotherhood inmate, who is serving a life sentence for attempted murder, is one of the more baffling aspects of their story. Why would attorneys who are devoted to representing correctional officers adopt an inmate? One answer is that in prison, the ranks of guards and inmates aren’t always so starkly divided. That reality was glimpsed in the Garcia and Lewis cases, where the couple’s clients were convicted of conspiring with inmates. Noel says he first came in contact with Schneider during Garcia’s criminal trial, when Schneider was called as a prosecution witness. The government maintained Garcia had an overly friendly relationship with Schneider, which seemed supported by the inmate’s actions at trial. Before he took the stand, Schneider wished Garcia good luck. The guard nodded and responded, “Thank you, Mr. Schneider.” Schneider refused to say anything incriminating about Garcia. During the trial an inmate described another friendly gesture between the two, recalling that Schneider handed Garcia a cup of inmate-made alcohol while the guard was stationed in a control tower. Schneider impressed Noel because, the attorney says, he refused to lie to help the government convict Garcia. “We had seen a procession of inmates willing to lie out the ass at trial to get a little relief — a transfer or a TV or a special meal,” he explains. “Paul shows up at trial and tells the DA, ‘I won’t lie for you.’ ” Noel says he later tried to arrange a transfer for Schneider when he believed he might be in danger of attack. “ Paul had done something brave and clean and honest. I was not going to stand aside.” Knoller says she first met Schneider in early 1999 (she was not present when he testified at the Garcia trial) and didn’t see him again for nearly two years. She got to know Schneider better after he bought the rare Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera, with money he earned helping another prisoner win a settlement from the CDC. Early last year she and Noel started caring for the dogs and she began corresponding with Schneider. “[It] was a running dialogue about what the dogs were doing,” she says. “It’s a way to keep him ‘outside.’ It’s his window into the world.” Noel and Knoller both explain that Schneider’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood — or “the Brand” as it now prefers to be known — is simply a prison gang affiliation. “The CDC is a very racially segregated world,” says Noel. “So Paul is part of the Brand. Nobody makes a big stink if somebody is a member of the Crips. What’s the big deal about being in a white gang?” He stresses that Schneider is not a white supremacist –which, he insists, is a different ideology. Noel even claims that the Aryan Brotherhood has Jewish members. Late last year the couple starting discussing adoption with Schneider. Knoller says it would be a way to try to obtain better medical care for Schneider, who has problems with a leg infection. “It’s a way to bug the CDC [about Schneider's medical care],” she says. Twice during the interview she jokes that she had to tell Schneider — whom she describes as “charming, good looking, articulate and incredibly bright” — that she couldn’t marry him to establish this family connection. One lawyer who knows Schneider’s reputation speculates that the inmate may be using Noel and Knoller. “I would not be surprised if [Noel] came under the spell of Paul Schneider, who is a very smart, witty guy,” he remarks. “I would not be surprised if he made out Bob as a mark.” Schneider, this lawyer notes, can also be dangerous. A decade ago, he stabbed an attorney in a court holding cell with a knife fashioned from a soup tureen; Schneider reportedly was unhappy with the lawyer’s defense of a fellow gang member. Knoller shrugs when reminded of that incident. “That’s a matter of inside politics — what a fellow gang member needs to do to protect a fellow gang member.” The code of honor in prison can be harsh. For example, when stressing that Schneider is a man who keeps his word, she remarks, “If he says he’s going to kill you, he’ll kill you.” THE DAY OF THE KILLING On the morning of Friday, Jan. 26, Noel traveled to Sacramento for hearings in two federal cases brought by former prison guards. In. the first, client Lavern Gautier appeared in court confused and in tears and told the judge that Noel wanted to drop her case against her wishes. The judge informed Noel he could not abandon the elderly Gautier, who claimed she had been forced to leave her job with the CDC because of a hostile work environment caused by younger workers. In the second case — brought by another guard who challenged his firing by the Department of Corrections for workers compensation fraud — Noel was sanctioned $250 for failing to respond to a discovery request. Between hearings Noel passed time by chatting with other attorneys about Bane and Hera, according to one person at the courthouse that day. That would be the last day that he would spend as a relatively obscure lawyer. That afternoon, one or both of the dogs would kill Diane Whipple in the hallway of their Pacific Heights apartment building in San Francisco. As appalling as the attack was — shredded clothing, blood and human hair covered 20 to 30 feet of the hallway floor and walls – the public has been just as outraged by the couple’s response to the tragedy. Noel and Knoller shifted the blame to Whipple, suggesting she provoked the attack. They unsuccessfully sued San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. And they portrayed themselves as victims. When the police searched their apartment, Noel cried that it was “just another example of the Gestapo kicking down the door of a Jewish home.” The fallout from Whipple’s death has delayed the federal government’s continuing efforts to convict more Pelican Bay guards. The trial of former guards Garcia and Powers, which had been scheduled for this month, has been postponed until June. The court gave the parties time to address issues dealing with Noel and Knoller’s adoption of Schneider. Garcia’s new lawyers maintain that this close relationship with the inmate created a conflict with the couple’s representation of Garcia in his state criminal case. They’ve also suggested that this alleged conflict, as well as a possible ineffective assistance claim, may provide grounds for a federal habeas review of Garcia’s state conviction. The attorneys appealing guard Lewis’ federal conviction are raising similar issues. Noel and Knoller claim they are in jail because of a CDC vendetta. The agency, they allege, has pressured Hallinan to bring down the hammer on them. Never mind that the famously liberal district attorney is an unlikely puppet of the Department of Corrections. In the jail interview room, both Noel and Knoller act as if this time behind bars is just a temporary disruption to their ongoing crusade for wrongly accused correctional officers. Knoller says she suspects that guards at another prison — High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Calif. — are likely to be targeted next for prosecution. She and Noel have lined up clients there and are preparing to do battle again. Although they’ve yet to be vindicated in these actions, Knoller doesn’t sound discouraged. She says with a smile, “We think we’re making a difference.”

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