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If San Francisco prosecutors decide to press criminal charges against the owners of two dogs that fatally attacked a woman in her apartment doorway last week, they’ll be able to use a year-old California law specifically designed for such cases. But an expert on dog attacks warns that while the new law, codified as Penal Code Section 399.5, gives prosecutors more ammo for filing charges, it also requires them to back their allegations with strong evidence on three separate grounds. “At the present time, San Francisco prosecutors don’t seem to be able to satisfy the requirements of the code,” Los Angeles sole practitioner Kenneth Phillips, a nationally recognized expert on dog-bite law, said Wednesday. The new law, commonly called “Cody’s Law” — after Cody Fox, a 12-year-old Tehama County boy mauled by dogs in 1998 — allows prosecutors to bring felony charges against dog owners who knew or should have known that their animals were dangerous. It also calls for a fine of up to $10,000 and a prison sentence of two to four years. But the law could make it difficult to prove a case against the two San Francisco attorneys, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who owned the dogs. Prosecutors must provide solid evidence that the dogs had been trained to “fight, attack or kill,” that the owners were negligent and, most importantly, that the owners “knew or reasonably should have known of the vicious or dangerous nature” of the dogs. “That means the prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the prior violent incidents were reported to the dog owners or that the dog owner was present when those incidents occurred,” Phillips said. “This is a law that has a lot of loopholes.” The new law is currently undergoing a major test in Southern California, where San Bernardino County prosecutors have charged a 55-year-old man with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of a 10-year-old boy. Though no charges have been filed against Noel and Knoller in the dog attack, a veteran San Francisco prosecutor familiar with the situation said Wednesday: “They’re in a heap of trouble.” Besides the married couple’s dog troubles, the two lawyers also face investigations into why they adopted Paul “Corn-fed” Schneider, a member of the prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood. One theory suggested by investigators is that as family it gives them easier access to the prison. The adoption was approved by a judge Monday, though it had been in the works for a few months. San Francisco prosecutors have talked about possibly filing criminal charges against Noel and Knoller ever since Friday, when the two attorneys’ dogs — both mastiff-Canary Island mixes — attacked Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old lacrosse coach, in the doorway of her Pacific Heights apartment. In fact, prosecutors met with police officers and their own investigators Wednesday to review what they know so far about the attack. “We reviewed preliminary reports about what’s going on,” said Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Guilfoyle, who would be the prosecutor if charges are filed against Noel and Knoller. “We’d like a decision made, hopefully, within three weeks.” Police have spoken to the two lawyers, Guilfoyle said, but still have about 40 people — neighbors, dog owners and people familiar with the breed — to interview. Noel and Knoller, who practice together, also sent a letter on their letterhead to the San Francisco district attorney’s office, asking that all evidence, including Hera, one of the two dogs involved in the attack, be held and not destroyed. “They just want to make sure that everything is preserved, in case charges are filed, for their defense,” said Guilfoyle, who is also the prosecutor in the infamous “man bites dog” case, where a man is charged with misdemeanor animal abuse for biting his dog’s neck. Guilfoyle also noted that if charges are filed, they’d be brought under the new dog-bite law, which carries a sentence similar to involuntary manslaughter. She also said she felt that the three prongs of the dog-bite law carried fewer proof elements than a traditional manslaughter charge. “The key is finding out the history of the animals and what the attorneys knew about them,” Guilfoyle said. “I guess they’re suspects in a pending investigation. We want to see whether their behavior was criminal conduct.” She also noted that the law doesn’t permit charges to be filed if the animals were provoked, but said that should be no problem in this case. “We have no evidence that Miss Whipple did anything at all to provoke this attack,” Guilfoyle said. The two dogs — Bane, which has been destroyed, and Hera — had been raised as part of a business run out of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison by white supremacist inmates Schneider and Dale Bretches. According to prison authorities, the two allegedly bred and trained dogs to guard criminal operations such as methamphetamine labs. According to press reports, Noel and Knoller acquired the dogs three months ago from Janet Coumbs, who was raising them for the inmates. Guilfoyle said that neither Brenda Storey of Fair Oaks, Calif., nor Coumbs of Hayfork, Calif., are suspects in the case. Storey allegedly arranged for Coumbs to care for the dogs on behalf of Schneider. Neither Noel nor Knoller could be reached for comment Wednesday, but they have maintained in interviews with the press that the dogs had never shown violence before. Noel has also scheduled a Friday press conference in front of the Pelican Bay prison. Before the dog incident, Noel was a well-known figure in Northern California courtrooms, especially in regard to Pelican Bay State Prison. Most notably, he defended former Pelican Bay guard David Lewis in a civil rights case brought by federal prose-cutors. Lewis was convicted last year of intentionally shooting an inmate in the chest. Noel and Knoller also defended Pelican Bay guard Jose Garcia, who was convicted in 1998 of setting up inmates to be assaulted. Garcia and another inmate now face federal charges as well, in a case not handled by Noel. On the civil side, Noel brought a suit on behalf of the family of William Boyd, an inmate who was killed after being called by the prosecution to testify against Garcia. That case is set to go to trial soon before U.S. District Senior Judge Thelton Henderson. Noel has appeared in State Bar Court also, unsuccessfully arguing a few years ago on behalf of John Wolfgram, an El Dorado County lawyer whose license was suspended for incompetence. Noel had argued that Wolfgram was suffering from depression and could have continued to practice law with supervision — a situation, he argued, that fell within the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirement for reasonable accommodations. Noel, who was admitted to practice law in California in 1976 after graduating from the University of Baltimore School of Law, and Knoller, admitted in 1992 after graduating from Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law, also were honored by the Bar Association of San Francisco in 1992. They were singled out for demonstrating “exceptional commitment” to serving the homeless or those at risk of homelessness in San Francisco. But Noel might be best remembered as the guy who ended the tradition of litigating parties being asked to buy lunch for civil case jurors in San Francisco Superior Court. Noel complained in 1997 after jurors got a high-priced meal at a trendy restaurant in a case in which he represented poor public housing residents. “They wanted $125 and my client’s got $430 a month to live on. That’s $15 a head for sandwiches and a 25-percent-per-juror tip,” Noel complained to The Recorder. “I was absolutely outraged.” Phillips, the Los Angeles dog-bite expert, said that about 15 to 20 people are killed in dog attacks each year in the United States. In the San Bernardino County case, young Cash Carson was mauled to death in April by two pit bull terriers that were in the care of James Chiavetta. Prosecutors, led by Deputy DA Steven Sinfield, are using the new dog-bite law by alleging that Chiavetta knew the dogs were dangerous and still let them out unleashed. They’ve also charged the dogs’ owners — Michael Caldwell and Gilbert Garcia of Las Vegas — with keeping dangerous animals without ordinary care, resulting in the death of another. Neither Sinfield nor Ronald Lewis, the Woodland Hills lawyer representing Caldwell, could be reached for comment Wednesday. But Lewis had earlier told ABCNews.com that the only reason that murder charges were filed against Chiavetta was because someone in the DA’s office wanted to make a name for himself. According to Phillips, civil suits in dog attacks are fairly easy to win in California, because the state has strict liability. If you own the dog, he said, you are responsible for its actions. However, proving criminal charges under the new law won’t be easy. “The thing we have to keep in mind,” he said, “is that all of the elements required by [Penal Code] Section 399.5 have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

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