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Downtown Dog Days 

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
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It isn‘t local, it isn’t televised, and it isn‘t O.J. -- it definitely isn’t O.J.

Instead, the “dog trial,” as The People of the State of California vs. Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel is conversationally known, has been exported to L.A. Superior Court with its San Francisco judge, prosecutors and lawyers intact. Although the case lacks an L.A. angle or the tan line of celebrity, its Frisco provenance allows us to comfortably laugh at the proceedings without the usual fear about what they may say about life in Los Angeles.

We‘d like to believe that only in San Francisco would a lacrosse coach be torn to pieces by two Presa Canarios named Bane and Hera in the hall of her upscale apartment building, that only in Northern California would such a case link dog-loving attorneys, white-supremacist Pelican Bay inmates and rumors of bestiality. All these ingredients have let slip what might be called the prensa canarios, for the press corps have followed the case with the ghoulish determination of old-fashioned yellow journalists. (You can almost hear James Cain’s ghost parodying the news hounds: “That was how I came to this Hall of Death you‘ve been reading about in the papers.”)

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Day One saw too many reporters vying for too few seats in Department 53’s small venue -- KNBC‘s Manny Medrano and CBS’s Paul Dandridge had to find chairs for themselves in the 12th-floor media center, a cramped workspace filled with closed-circuit monitors. (Judge James Warren had permitted only the attorneys‘ opening statements to be televised.) At one point Medrano handed a colleague a little camera and had him take two pictures of Medrano posed watching TV -- a moment in history captured. But by the next day there were already empty seats in the courtroom, and anyone with a driver’s license was let in.

Some things are immediately apparent to spectators sitting on the other side of the tall glass barrier separating them from the court: Knoller and Noel have lost lots of weight during their year in jail, and the noise made by the court reporter‘s stenography machine unnervingly sounds like a big dog lapping up water from a bowl. As I said, this is no O.J. trial, but in her opening statement, Knoller’s attorney, Nedra Ruiz, seemed to crib from Johnnie Cochran by declaring, “Diane Whipple‘s terrible death brings us together in a search for justice,” and by implying that slow-acting cops were really to blame for that death. She even claimed that one of the killer dogs suffered a torn ligament and was on painkillers -- an odd echo of Simpson’s supposedly crippling arthritis.

In fact, following prosecutor James Hammer‘s gruesome reconstruction of Whipple’s death, Ruiz tried to somehow turn those very same horrific moments to her client‘s advantage by pantomiming the hall-of-death passion play. In a now-notorious coup de theatre, she abruptly hit the deck and crawled around the courtroom floor on all fours, making Knoller cry -- for about two seconds. There were also tears upstairs that first day, but they were tears of laughter as reporters watched Ruiz’s performance with drop-jawed incredulity.

“She should have worn pants today,” snickered one reporter. “How long do you think she rehearsed her opening?” asked another. It wasn‘t just that Ruiz had assumed the doggy position -- when the defense lawyer was done with her account she lingered on the floor, now on her knees, microphone in hand. She looked up at the bewildered court, then began to cry when elaborating about the carnage of that evening -- indeed, Ruiz’s lachrymose antics, along with her tragic face and long, witchy hair, have transformed her into La Llorona of torts.

For their part, neither of the accused, separated by their own attorneys, ever looks at the other or even at the prosecution‘s witnesses, spending their time instead furiously writing notes. The Martin Mull--ish Noel, often sits back in his chair with an arm dangling down, while his wife continually massages her left shoulder. The haggard-looking Knoller did, however, manage to turn around once and smile at her parents during testimony relating to snoring. (A former neighbor turned witness hadn’t known if Noel or one of the dogs had made the noise that nightly tore through their shared apartment wall.)

The Nedra Show has continued unabated. Asking prosecution witness Janet Coumbs to stand and demonstrate just how tall Bane was when he licked her face, Ruiz stepped toward her and announced, “I know that counsel will say this is typecasting, but I‘m gonna be the dog!” and with that put her own paws on Coumbs’ shoulders. “I think we‘ll leave it to the jury’s imagination about the licking,” a startled Judge Warren interjected. The look on his face said that this is going to be a long trial.

The Harder They Fall

Nothing is sadder -- or funnier -- than a Christmas tree lying in the gutter long after New Year‘s. As of March 6, two trees are vying for local last-man-standing rights: a 3-and-a-half-footer tossed near a curb in the 1500 block of Silver Lake Boulevard and a somewhat smaller one on the corner of Parkman Avenue and Silver Lake. Both seemed to have benefited, until very recently, from careful watering -- in other words, they had been kept alive.

What’s on Tom Hatten‘s Mind?

“How will Ted Koppel feel?” asked KNX radio’s Tom Hatten last week, following a story about ABC‘s plan to replace Nightline with David Letterman. On the air, though, Mr. Hatten didn’t quite enunciate the “l” in “Koppel” and it sounded like he said, “How will Ted Kop a feel,” leading some listeners to wonder if there was something wrong with Ted‘s hands and not his ratings.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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