April 08, 2002 12:00 PM

Sharon Smith sobbed quietly at first. Then, as the hushed gallery in Los Angeles Criminal Courthouse on March 21 let out a collective gasp, she crumpled, as if to release 14 months of anguish: A jury of seven men and five women had found her former neighbor Marjorie Knoller guilty of second-degree murder in the horrific dog-mauling death of Smith’s companion of seven years, Diane Alexis Whipple. Knoller, 46, was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter, as was Robert Noel, 60, her husband and fellow attorney. “There’s no real joy in this verdict, but there is some sense of justice,” Smith said. “Now I’m just looking forward to getting on with life.”

Smith, 36, avoided much of the trial because the details of her partner’s death were too ghastly to bear—but the experience has forever transformed her life. On the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2001, Whipple, 33, had returned from the market to their sixth-floor apartment in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights district. As Whipple, a college lacrosse coach, stood in front of her open door, death came snarling down the hall in the form of Bane and Hera, her neighbors’ two huge Presa Canario dogs. Bane, a male whose leash had slipped from Knoller’s grasp, went for Whipple’s throat, crushing her windpipe, inflicting an estimated 77 wounds and leaving her in a sea of blood.

Only the second person in U.S. history to be convicted of murder in a dog attack, Knoller had claimed on the witness stand that she’d thrown her body over Whipple’s in a heroic effort to shield her. “Her testimony was not believable,” says jury foreman Don Newton, 64. “That was crucial to our verdict.” Now Knoller faces 15 years to life in prison when she is sentenced May 10; Noel, who wasn’t home when the mauling took place, could serve up to four years for refusing to control the dogs (some 30 neighbors testified to having been menaced by the 100-plus-lb. creatures—though none filed a complaint).

The Whipple case, which riveted the country, has ramifications far beyond its lesson in the extent of a pet owner’s responsibility. It has also become a critical test of the rights of same-sex domestic partners. Fueled by grief and rage, Sharon Smith, a vice president for brokerage house Charles Schwab, has made social history: In March 2001 she filed a landmark civil suit (now pending in San Francisco superior court) seeking unspecified damages from her neighbors, becoming the first gay person in the U.S. allowed to sue for the wrongful death of a companion. “The criminal trial is justice for Diane,” says Smith. “The civil trial is going to be justice for me.”

It is also a political cause that has galvanized the nation’s gay and lesbian community and pushed the shy, fiercely private Smith into the spotlight. “Sharon is the quintessential reluctant activist,” says Kate Kendell, one of her civil attorneys and executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights. “There are very few lesbians or gay men who do not know about this case and who have not been moved by Sharon’s courage.” In a sense, reinventing herself as an icon of the gay rights movement—her “national coming out,” Smith calls it—has been liberating. “I’m more comfortable with who I am,” she says. Her quiet poise won over the California legislature when she testified on behalf of a bill, signed by Gov. Gray Davis last October, that gives same-sex partners the right to sue—the first such law in the country. (Smith’s own suit predates the new law and proceeded only because a judge ruled to allow it, so any award could be nullified on appeal.) Says Assemblywoman Carole Migden, who had already introduced the bill before the dog-mauling occurred: “She put a face on the concept.”

By contrast, the defendants were a PR disaster. Interviewed after the mauling, Knoller and Noel seemed cavalier to many, generating so much bad press that the trial was moved to L.A. Clearly their attitude ultimately influenced the jury. “There was no kind of sympathy, no kind of apologies,” says juror Shawn Antonio, 27. The couple had acquired Bane and Hera from Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, 38, a Pelican Bay State Prison inmate they legally adopted days after the mauling. Schneider, who is serving a life sentence for attempted murder and belongs to the white-supremacist Aryan Nation Brotherhood, had allegedly obtained Bane and Hera as part of a scheme to breed guard dogs for sale. In one damning letter to Schneider before the attack, Noel mocked Whipple who was obviously terrified of the animals, as “a timorous little mousy blond.”

Now it is Smith who cringes at the sight of a canine. “I’m so aware of dogs now—that dog barking in there, the dog across the street,” she says at an outdoor cafe near her home. Ironically her late father, Edward, and mother, Linda, 64, bred dachshunds in rural California, Md. Smith won a partial field hockey scholarship to Longwood College in Farmville, Va., graduating in 1987 with a degree in recreational therapy. When cutbacks ended her job at a rehab hospital, a friend suggested she hire on with a firm that sold low-cost stocks. Then she landed a job at Schwab, which led her to Diane Whipple. In February 1994 Smith was at a seminar in Southern California when a mutual friend invited them to see a rock band at a Long Beach bar Whipple, then living in San Diego, was training as a middle-distance runner for the 1996 Summer Olympics (she missed qualifying). The chemistry was immediate. Two months later, when Smith was transferred to Palo Alto, Calif., Whipple went alone. They were a study in contrasts: Smith contained and ambitious; Whipple a blithe, free mint with a penchant for Gummi bears and a distaste for the 9-to-5 routine. “She was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, really silly,” says Smith. “Nothing would embarrass her.”

While training for the 2000 Games, Whipple was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and though surgery cured her, she was devastated by the end of her Olympic hopes. She turned to coaching lacrosse, in which she had been an all-American at Manhasset (N.Y.) High School and Penn State. “She was smart, cute and fun,” says UCLA sophomore Emily Meyer, 19, who played for Whipple at Menlo High School outside San Francisco. “You just can’t imagine her laugh.” In September 1999 Whipple signed on with St. Mary’s College, a small Catholic institution in nearby Moraga, Calif. By then she and Smith had taken a flat in Pacific Heights—down the hall from Noel and Knoller.

Since the attack, Smith has moved to another apartment six blocks away. Now on leave from Schwab, she attends regular grief-counseling sessions and recently began dating again. Should she win a civil award, Smith plans to put every cent into the Diane Alexis Whipple Foundation, an organization devoted to women’s lacrosse, cancer research and abused children that she set up shortly after Whipple’s death. For Smith it is also a way to keep her partner’s spirit alive. “I didn’t want her to be the Dog-Mauling Victim,” she says. “I wanted people to know her name.”

•Richard Jerome

•Alexis Chiu in San Francisco and Maureen Harrington and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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