Man Without Qualities

Friday, March 22, 2002

The Criminal Law and Married Couples

Today brought word of the convictions of a San Francisco married couple, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, for the killing of Diane Whipple, their neighbor, by the couple’s vicious dogs. But what is perhaps most striking about this case is the conviction of the wife – but not her husband - of second degree murder. Her husband was found guilty only of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also convicted of having a mischievous dog that killed someone.

These convictions follow almost immediately the conviction of Andrea Yates of the murder of her five children despite obvious signs of mental illness, but not mental illness so severe as to deprive Ms. Yates of the ability to know she was doing a great wrong. Her husband, Russell, has not been charged with any crime.

What these dissimilar cases have in common is their indication that the criminal justice system is rapidly moving away from any traditionalist assumption – indeed from any assumption – that a husband has significant responsibility for his wife’s criminal acts. Traditional society vested the husband with fairly broad responsibility for acts of his wife. Indeed, cases of physical abuse of husbands by wives were traditionally rarely taken seriously on the theory that the husband was in some way responsible for what was happening to him, and the problem persists even today. Some modern feminists have also maintained a stance of broad male responsibility by arguing that women, when victims of a male “dominance” which is often easily inferred, have diminished responsibility for their acts. Thus, abused wives injuring or killing their mates are sometimes defended on such feminist grounds (which are certainly not accepted by all feminists), even where the wife’s attack does not constitute immediate self defense.

But the Whipple and Yates cases indicate that society – or at least the criminal justice system – is rejecting both the traditionalist and this particular feminist model.

The conviction of Knoller of murder in these circumstances was highly unusual, for either a man or a woman. It is especially striking that a woman was convicted on such untried grounds.

The prosecution did not argue that Knoller had express malice against Whipple. Instead, Knoller was convicted on the basis of having “implied” malice. The prosecutors successfully argued that Knoller's conduct on the day of the killing showed such reckless disregard for human life that it should be regarded as “malicious”. They based that on the dangerousness of the breed, the history of the dogs, the couple’s shared knowledge that she could not control the dogs, and the generally malicious attitude of the couple towards other people.

Noel was not present at the time and place of the killing, and it is Knoller’s actual handling of the dogs on the day of the killing that constituted the basis for her murder charge. But Knoller’s physical custody of the dogs at the moment they erupted is important only if Noel had no strong responsibility for his wife’s acts even where he generally aided them and knew the danger they created. There was ample evidence that both the husband and wife knew equally well that their dogs were vicious to the point of being, in the prosecution’s terms, “time bombs.” The vicious animals were harbored in the couple’s shared apartment. More than 30 witnesses said they had been terrorized by the dogs – so both the husband and wife had lots of opportunity to understand that the problem was very real. Noel agreed to her having physical custody of the dogs and helped it to happen. Surely Noel assisted, aided and abetted Knoller in every act that constituted or supported her “implied malice” supporting her murder conviction.

The husband’s letters to the couple's adopted son were read to the jury. Two weeks before the attack, Noel wrote about an incident in which the dogs frightened Whipple as she entered the building's elevator. In the letter, Noel callously referred to Whipple as a "timorous little mousy blond." After the murder, he wrote another letter bemoaning the death of one of the dogs and vowing to fight for the life of the other. "Neighbors be damned," he wrote. "If they don't like living in the building with her, they can move."

Further, Knoller tried to save Whipple. Police photos of Knoller, taken shortly after the attack, show her covered with blood, one hand cut from trying to push the dog's mouth away from Whipple, Knoller said, one eye blackened from being struck by a Whipple. Knoller also said that she had been bitten on the shoulder and upper chest. An expert witness testified that Knoller’s wounds prove that she was trying to fight off one of the attacking dogs.

Don Newton, 64, foreman of the seven-man, five-woman jury, said "The question of implied malice was a difficult question to decide, but we did decide there was implied malice in her actions." He also said Noel, who was not present during the attack, nevertheless "was equally responsible."

Yet the wife, Knoller, was convicted of murder and Noel, her husband, of only involuntary manslaughter.

Noel was not even charged with murder, so the jury did not have the option to convict him of this more serious crime, and so far we have no knowledge of whether they would have been inclined to do so if they had been given the chance. But the prosecution’s decision to charge Knoller with the more serious crime despite the couple’s similar level of involvement does not seem consistent with the traditional concept of family roles or with a propensity to view women as blameless victims of male dominance which can be a theme of some feminists.

In the Yates matter, Texas authorities are still considering bringing child endangerment charges against Mr. Yates, but reportedly do not believe the evidence supporting such charges exists at this time. But Mr. Yates has been the target of a torrent of abuse from some quarters for failing to satisfy the obligation posited by his critics to make sure his wife was adequately treated for her mental illness. The contrast between the prosecutors’ tentative decision not to bring charges and what appears to be a widespread conviction that Mr. Yates was in some sense criminally responsible for his wife’s murder of their children suggests that the society is in transition.

Neither the Whipple nor the Yates case has come definitively to rest. There appear to be serious grounds for appeal of the Whipple convictions, and the Texas authorities may yet act against Mr. Yates. But at this time, both of these cases suggest that something serious is happening to the law’s treatment of married couples.

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