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Those looking for legal theatrics got them Tuesday at the opening of San Francisco’s nefarious dog mauling trial. On the first day of the estimated six-week trial, Nedra Ruiz, defense attorney for Marjorie Knoller, spent 2 1/2 hours on an opening statement that was punctuated by tears, courtroom histrionics and the first explanations of several allegations by the prosecution. Knoller is charged with second-degree murder for the Jan. 26, 2001, death of Diane Whipple, who was mauled to death by two dogs, Bane and Hera. Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, are also charged with manslaughter and keeping mischievous dogs. She faces 15 years to life in prison if convicted; he could get a maximum of four years. Both defendants, who are attorneys, have pleaded not guilty and plan to testify on their own behalves. A key element of the prosecution’s case is that the two failed to control dogs they knew to be aggressive. Ruiz sought to show that Knoller did all she could to shield Whipple from the canine attack. The attorney used the courtroom as her theater. As jurors looked on in mild amazement, Ruiz got down on all fours to show how her client bent over the victim and told her not to move. “Marjorie swung her body onto Miss Whipple and says, ‘Don’t move; I think Bane is trying to protect me.’” Ruiz said in an urgent voice that was amplified loudly by the handheld microphone she carried. Superior Court Judge James Warren, who is presiding over the case he moved to Los Angeles because of excessive pretrial publicity in San Francisco, stood up and leaned over the bench to watch the lawyer. Ruiz sought to explain the pounding noise a neighbor of Noel and Knoller said she heard during the attack. The prosecution claims it was one of the dogs, but Ruiz said it was Knoller using her leg to try to control Bane. To emphasize her point, she pounded her leg hard on the front of the cherry wood-paneled box where the jury of seven women and five men sat. Ruiz also blamed two police officers for failing to give first aid to Whipple. The prosecution said the two female officers tried to keep the victim quiet so she would not lose more blood. The defense attorney burst into tears as she showed jurors several 4- by 3-foot color pictures of Knoller, also covered in blood. “The evidence will show that Marjorie did not step back,” her lawyer said, wiping away tears as Knoller herself began to sob. “Marjorie Knoller tried to save the poor girl’s life.” Lead prosecutor James Hammer took 1 1/2 half hours for his opening statement and showed at least five graphic pictures taken at the morgue of Whipple’s mauled body. The pictures showed huge gouges on her neck and deep bites on her breasts and buttocks. “Diane Whipple was covered from head almost to her toes from wounds by these dogs,” Hammer said. Before Hammer was more than two minutes into his opening, Sharon Smith, Whipple’s domestic partner, stood up and left the courtroom, apparently overcome. Hammer also showed pictures of the Pacific Heights apartment hallway where Whipple died. Groceries were scattered all over, and blood covered the walls, the carpet and plastic grocery bags. The prosecutor said Knoller and Noel had entered into a pact with Pelican Bay state prison inmates Paul “Cornfed” Schneider and Dale Bretches, to raise presa canario dogs that were aggressive and uncontrollable. Hammer said Noel failed to heed the dangers the dogs posed to people, particularly in an urban environment. He said there were 30 prior incidents with the dogs where people were bitten, lunged at or intimidated, and he added that many of those individuals will testify at the trial. As he wove his narrative, Hammer kept telling jurors, “You decide, you decide.” Lawyers outside the courtroom during a break said the prosecutor was arguing — not just stating what he believes the evidence will show. Defense counsel never objected. “He drew an inference that [Noel and Knoller] showed no remorse,” said Michael Cardoza, Smith’s attorney, who has filed a civil lawsuit against the defendants and the apartment owner. Bruce Hotchkiss, Noel’s defense counsel, promised to keep his opening statements to 15 minutes. He spoke for 10. Hotchkiss argued that the state has no case against his client, since Noel was not present when the attack occurred. He said Noel had a flat tire on his way back from Berkeley that day. “Because of that flat tire, Mr. Noel did not arrive back at the apartment building until after this tragedy,” the lawyer said. The lead prosecution witness was Janet Coumbs, who cared for the dogs on her Northern California ranch before they were turned over to Noel and Knoller. She is in the witness protection program because of her past relationship with Bretches and Schneider, members of the Aryan Brotherhood. The courtroom was packed, with all seats taken. Testimony continues Wednesday with Coumbs.

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