Attorneys in Dog-Mauling Case Deploy Widely Different Styles
Defense attorney Nedra Ruiz’s unconventional theatrics took center stage during the first week in the trial of a San Francisco couple charged with the fatal dog mauling of their neighbor.
She imitated a dog when asking a witness how tall the animal stood on its hind legs. She waved her arms and raised her voice to emphasize questions.
And, surprising spectators and prompting the judge to stand for a better view, she dropped down on the courtroom floor and tearfully reenacted the fatal attack during her opening statement.
Bruce Hotchkiss, on the other hand, quietly asked questions on behalf of his own client and frequently chose not to cross-examine witnesses at all. His opening statement was simple and succinct, lasting just 10 minutes.
Their respective clients, Marjorie Knoller, 46, and Robert Noel, 60, are charged with involuntary manslaughter in the January 2001 dog mauling of Diane Whipple outside her San Francisco apartment door. Knoller also faces a second-degree murder charge.
The defense attorneys’ courtroom demeanors contrast sharply, and their personalities appear to parallel their strategies.
“It’s like the sun and the moon,” said defense attorney J. Tony Serra, who works with Ruiz. “They both go around the Earth. But one is a little bit brighter and a little bit hotter than the other.”
As the case resumes today, Ruiz will continue to argue that her client, Knoller, tried to save Whipple’s life by hurling her body on top of her neighbor. Hotchkiss’ defense is that Noel was not at the apartment during the attack and therefore can’t be blamed.
The two prosecutors in the case, James Hammer and Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, have similarly aggressive, methodical styles.
Hammer, a clean-cut attorney with a broad smile, is a former Jesuit who worked as a public defender and a professor before deciding on a career as a prosecutor. Guilfoyle Newsom, who modeled lingerie and sweaters to pay for law school, did a four-year stint as a Los Angeles prosecutor and then returned to her hometown of San Francisco to try felony cases.
The prosecutors maintain that the defendants knew that their massive Presa Canario dogs, weighing more than 100 pounds each, were dangerous, and that they didn’t do anything to prevent Whipple’s death.
All four attorneys live and practice in the Bay Area, but have made Los Angeles their temporary home during the trial, which was moved because of publicity in San Francisco. They are trying to go home on weekends, but their workload makes that difficult during a trial that could last eight weeks.
Raised in San Rafael, Ruiz, 53, graduated in 1976 from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and started her career doing criminal defense work for the poor at a community center. She married defense attorney Laurence Lichter, now a partner at Serra’s San Francisco firm, and had three children. Ruiz eventually joined the firm herself, doing appellate work and fighting for the decriminalization of prostitution.
When Knoller dumped her public defender and asked Serra to represent her, he declined because he was busy representing Sara Jane Olson, who recently was convicted of attempting to bomb Los Angeles Police Department cars in 1975. Serra referred Knoller to Ruiz.
Serra said that Ruiz is a passionate attorney and that her performance in court is an effective way to make an emotional impact on the jurors. “To brand your case with a real hot iron is the real way to go,” he said.
But Ruiz’s outspoken demeanor already has caused a stir a few times. A judge held her in contempt for violating a gag order when she talked to reporters after a hearing. Ruiz also accused Hammer in open court of lying, but later apologized.
Kicking the Jury Box
Ruiz, who is being paid by Knoller’s parents, said she is trying to bring the case to life in a forceful, dramatic way. During opening statements, she kicked the jury box repeatedly and called one of the dogs a “berserk beast.”
“It’s just the way I am,” she said. “I have to present every facet of my client’s case to the best of my ability. If that involves ... getting on the floor, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Hotchkiss has a different style.
Consistent with his low-key personality and constant effort to steer clear of publicity, the 67-year-old attorney would only provide information on his background for this story.
Hotchkiss speaks matter-of-factly and always appears composed. He grew up in Kansas and attended Washburn University School of Law in Topeka. For more than 30 years, Hotchkiss has worked as a public defender, both in Riverside and San Francisco.
One of his most publicized cases was that of a Navy airman convicted of killing a San Francisco community activist despite Hotchkiss’ argument that his client acted in self-defense.
Hotchkiss, a divorced father with one son, started his own criminal defense practice in San Francisco in 1992. He was appointed by the court to defend Noel in April 2001, and has done everything possible to separate his client from Whipple’s death.
Philip Stone, a San Francisco attorney who has worked with both defense lawyers, called Hotchkiss smart and cerebral. “He’s very calm,” Stone said. “I don’t recall him ever appearing angry.”
Hammer may have the most diverse background of any of the four.
Hammer, the son of a city bus driver and a teacher’s aid, worked as a reserve police officer before deciding on a career in law. But less than two years after graduating from Hastings, he decided to become a Jesuit priest. He fed the poor in Mexico and taught Catholic school in Watts and law school in Santa Clara.
While at the law school, Hammer started a community legal center for San Jose day laborers, which he considers “the proudest achievement of my life.”
“The measure of my life is how I reach out to the least fortunate,” said Hammer, 40, who hikes and plays guitar in his free time.
The executive director of the San Jose center, Margaret Stevenson, said Hammer rolled up his sleeves and fearlessly took on the challenge. “What Jim had done, sort of by the seat of his pants, was develop ways for law students to work as advocates in social justice,” she said.
But in 1995, at the same time he told his family he was gay, Hammer left the Jesuits and returned to the courtroom, prosecuting cases in Santa Clara and then San Francisco.
Though he has tried only a few murder cases, Hammer was recently promoted to the head of the homicide division. Hammer said he takes his inspiration from crime victims, and tries to boil each case down to its bones and “weave it into a story so the jurors can understand.”
His partner in the case, Guilfoyle Newsom, 32, is a San Francisco native who is half Puerto Rican and half Irish. She started her law career interning at the district attorney’s office near her college, UC Davis. She graduated from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1994, and taught school briefly before taking a job as a prosecutor.
But she and other newcomers lost their jobs in 1996 after the newly elected top prosecutor, Terence Hallinan, took office. So she moved to Los Angeles, where she handled arson, sexual assault and even a few dog-fighting cases.
Stephen Kay, who supervised Guilfoyle Newsom when she worked at the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said defense lawyers often underestimated her.
“They would see this beautiful woman and they would think for some reason that she can’t be smart too,” Kay said.
Kay added that Guilfoyle Newsom always prepared meticulously and made hard-hitting and emotional arguments that reminded him “of a minister in the pulpit on a Sunday morning.”
Returned to San Francisco
She returned to the San Francisco district attorney’s office two years ago and is prosecuting violent felonies and homicides. In December, she married San Francisco Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who is said to be considering a run for mayor next year.
They celebrated with a lavish black-tie reception at the home of billionaire Gordon Getty, an event attended by actor Ed Asner, author Danielle Steel and Mayors Willie and Jerry Brown.
The attorney said she doesn’t like to focus on her time as a model, and prefers instead to cite her undefeated felony trial record.
“I don’t think that’s what defines me,” said Guilfoyle Newsom, who spends free time doing philanthropic work. “I did that to pay for law school, but at a certain point you want to move on.”