updated 5/5/2005 10:30:07 PM ET 2005-05-06T02:30:07

A state appeals court on Thursday reinstated the second-degree murder conviction of an attorney whose giant dogs mauled and killed a neighbor in the hallway of a San Francisco apartment building.

The 1st District Court of Appeal reversed a ruling by a lower court judge who vacated the jury’s finding against Marjorie Knoller and reduced her conviction to manslaughter. She was freed after serving two years of a four-year sentence, but the murder count is punishable by 15 years to life in prison.

Knoller and her husband, attorney Robert Noel, were convicted in the 2001 mauling death of Diane Whipple, 33, who was attacked outside her apartment by the couple’s two 100-pound-plus presa canario dogs.

Panel faults judge's ruling
The appeals court said Superior Court Judge James Warren erroneously concluded that for Knoller to be guilty of murder, she would have had to have known that her dogs would kill.

The court ordered Warren to review the decision using a different standard — that Knoller disregarded a known risk the dogs presented, including the viciousness of Bane, the dog mostly responsible for the death.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office, which had appealed Warren’s decision, was satisfied with the ruling.

“It basically stands for the proposition that the decisions made by juries should not be overridden by judges except in the most unusual circumstance, and this is not one of them,” said Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar.

Death called ‘preventable’
“It’s very emotional because this was one of the most preventable murders I’ve ever seen,” said Jim Hammer, who prosecuted the two defendants and is now a television legal analyst. “There was a meanness and sadistic quality to it. These people got a thrill because their dogs scared people.”

Dennis Riordan, Knoller’s attorney, said he will ask the San Francisco-based appeals court to reconsider, and if they don’t, appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Riordan contended the appeals court “did not apply existing law.” He said the murder conviction should not stand because his client was not shown to have had a “conscious disregard for human life.”

11 prior threatening instances
The appeals court upheld Noel’s involuntary manslaughter conviction. Noel was not charged with murder because he was not home during the attack.

Justice James Lambden, writing for a three-judge panel, said Knoller knew that Bane was a “frightening and dangerous animal: huge, untrained and bred to fight.” During the trial, there was testimony of at least 11 instances in which the dogs growled, lunged or attacked others, including nearly severing Noel’s finger.

Both Knoller, 49, and Noel, 63, have been paroled. Knoller now lives in Florida. It was not known whether the two are still married.

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