Murder by dog: Owners liable for violent pets

What do a gun, a knife, and a vicious dog have in common? They can all get you charged with murder.

Just ask Marjorie Knoller, the lawyer convicted of second-degree murder and other charges last year by a California jury in the fatal mauling of a neighbor by two large guard dogs in her care.

Although the judge later set aside the most serious verdicts against Knoller, she learned the hard way that owning killer dogs can lead to jail time. Her husband was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of neighbor Diane Whipple, 33, a college lacrosse coach.

Other dog owners have also learned that owning killer dogs can lead to murder and manslaughter charges.

A Kansas woman was convicted of murder after her two Rottweilers escaped from her yard and attacked and killed an 11-year-old boy. The woman was home sleeping when her dogs, "Max" and "Maxine," mauled the boy to death.

Don't worry; if your pooch suddenly turns into "Cujo" and kills everyone on your block, you won't spend the rest of your life in jail. Under the law, a person is criminally liable for a death caused by his dog only if that person fails to act properly when circumstances indicate that his dangerous dog is likely to hurt someone.

In the Kansas case, the defendant raised the dogs as attack dogs through "Schutzhund" techniques, where a dog is taught to bite a padded sleeve until commanded to stop. But she didn't accompany the techniques with the necessary obedience training. She then kept the dogs in her backyard where they were regularly able to escape through a defective gate. The jury found that the defendant's conduct amounted to a depraved indifference to the value of human life, warranting a murder conviction.

The jury could have convicted her of the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter, which usually requires only reckless disregard of a known risk of injury or death, resulting in death. This isn't as bad as conduct indicating a depraved indifference to the value of human life. But the jury found that the absurdity of the defendant's conduct warranted a murder conviction.

In other cases where prosecutors have opted to charge defendant dog owners with involuntary manslaughter for deaths caused by their dogs, juries have been willing to convict.

In North Carolina, a man was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail after his Rottweilers, "Bruno" and "Woody," escaped from his yard and mauled a jogger to death on a public roadway. The conviction was based on the defendant's knowledge of his dogs' "aggressive" behavior, coupled with his violation of a local law requiring adequate fencing for animals.

In Georgia, a man was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after his three pit bulls escaped from his property and killed a child. The conviction was based on his reckless failure to contain animals he knew to be dangerous in an area heavily populated with small children.

If a prosecutor feels that he can't prove that the defendant actually knew of the danger his killer dog posed to others, he can charge a defendant with the lesser offense of criminally negligent homicide. This requires proof only that a defendant should have known that his dog posed a risk of serious injury or death, and his failure to safeguard the public from the dog was highly unreasonable under the circumstances.

A Tennessee man was convicted of this charge and sentenced to one year in jail when his Rottweilers escaped through a hole in his fence and mauled an elderly neighbor to death. The jury found that the defendant's failure to realize how dangerous his dogs were, coupled with his failure to repair the fence, and the resulting death, constituted criminally negligent homicide.

Like guns or knives, dogs can kill and land irresponsible dog owners in jail. While the owners of the canine killers in the San Francisco case may escape criminal liability, chances are, if your dangerous dog kills, you won't be so lucky.

Patricia Rouse is an attorney active in developing the emerging field of "pet law." This story is distributed by the Featurewell service.