Waldlaw Blog

Thursday, May 05, 2005


May 5, 2005 Today my worlds collided. What many people don't know about me is that, while I've made my reputation doing non-traditional family law -- primarily representing LGBT couples having/adopting children -- my background is as a criminal defense attorney. I spent 5 years as a public defender, followed by 10 years handling indigent criminal appeals. And I just finished a semester teaching a criminal law and procedure review course to upper level law students. So criminal defense is in my blood, although I haven't been practicing it for a few years now. That brings us to today. I spent the morning working on my LGBT family law cases, then met a criminal defense colleague for lunch. While I was in his waiting room, the news arrived that the Noel/Knoller decision had just come down. To refresh your memories: this was the dog mauling case where Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller were keeping large, vicious dogs in their San Francisco apartment and the dogs attacked and killed their lesbian neighbor while she was trying to bring in her groceries. There is no question whatsoever that Noel and Knoller were grossly irresponsible, and I had no issue whatsoever with their being convicted of manslaughter based on gross negligence. But MURDER is generally defined as an intentional killing. And while Noel and Knoller were incredibly irresponsible -- criminally so -- they certainly did not intend to kill anyone with their dogs. So as a criminal lawyer and law professor, this decision makes me very nervous -- it's one of those slippery slopes -- if this is murder, not manslaughter, then what other grossly irresponsible conduct will become murder next, and what will happen to the intent requirement. This case represented many of our worst nightmares. Being attacked by large vicious dogs…. Coming home to find one's lover unexpectedly dead, and having died in so brutal a way…. There are no happy endings possible here. And bad facts have always made for bad laws. I only wonder if, when all is said and done, the price of this murder conviction will have been worth it.


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