As previously discussed California’s infamous Knoller case involving a vicious dog attack and the sentencing of two lawyers for the death of a young woman coming home from a jog. Now, the owner of four pit bulls has been charged with the murder of a jogger with the use of DNA testing of the blood found on their snouts. Alex Johnson, 29, will stand trial in the death of Pamela Dewitt, 63, who was bitted 150 to 200 times by his pit bulls.
Police arrested Jackson immediately after the attack but released him pending the outcome of the DNA case. It is an example of how DNA (once treated as a rare, expensive process) is now being using in so many different aspects of our criminal justice system.
Working against Jackson are prior reports of his dogs attacking or threatening people, another striking similarity with earlier cases. Notably, a deputy arrived at the scene during the attack and tried to drive off the dogs, which attacked the deputy. Police later took away eight dogs from Jackson’s home, including six pit bulls and two mixed-breeds.
The common law treats these cases under a strict liability standard. An owner is strictly liable for a dog with known vicious tendencies. This is sometimes called (inartfully) the “one free bite rule” since after the first bite, an owner has obvious knowledge. However, it sometimes does not require a bite to have such knowledge. Indeed, these laws can serve as such warnings.
One of the most infamous cases involved two lawyers. Lawyers Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel were successfully prosecuted after their huge “Presa Canario” dogs mauled and killed neighbor, Diane Whipple, in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building in January 2001. Whipple was bitten 77 times and the dogs nearly severed her vertebrae.
Jurors found Marjorie Knoller’s husband, Robert Noel, guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and found Knoller guilty of second-degree murder.
The common law rule also applies to wild animals. Defining some animals as wild can be done with reference to statutes or the lack of animus revertendi (the habit of return). The most common category in the United States is the possession of wolves or part-wolf animals as pets.
This is a classic case for both tort and criminal law. The Knollers faced both forms of liability. Some towns have either banned or classified pit bulls as dangerous animals. In a move that is likely to become a trend, Tennessee is moving to require a minimum of $25,000 insurance policies for anyone possessing a pit bull or vicious dog. In another area, a woman reportedly lost her insurance coverage due to the ownership of a pit bull.
Jackson is facing life in prison if convicted.