Dog Attack Lawyer Unconventional
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Dressed in a conservative skirt and jacket, the wild-haired lawyer crawled across the courtroom floor. She kicked the jury box. She flailed her arms, cried and screamed.
Those opening statement images were the first that jurors _ and TV viewers nationwide _ saw of Nedra Ruiz, a defense attorney in the trial of a San Francisco couple for the fatal dog mauling of their neighbor.
"She sure made a memorable first appearance on the stage down here," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles, where the trial was moved because of publicity. "Most people I talk to just shook their heads. To put it mildly, her style is unusual. It's borderline bizarre."
Ruiz is defending Marjorie Knoller, charged with second-degree murder in the January 2001 dog mauling death of her neighbor, Diane Whipple.
Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel, also face charges of involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed a person. Defense lawyers began presenting their cases this week.
Ruiz drew fire this week when she attacked the credibility of Whipple's domestic partner during a television interview. Judge James Warren said he will hold a hearing on whether to sanction Ruiz for accusing Sharon Smith of lying on the stand.
Last summer, Knoller fired her public defender, who had been scrupulous about avoiding publicity, and asked noted defense attorney Tony Serra to represent her. Serra, whose work inspired a 1989 movie called "True Believer," was immersed in the case of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson at the time. He referred Knoller to Ruiz, a colleague in his firm.
"I thought Nedra was perfect because it's best to have a woman professing the innocence of a woman in this case," he said. "She's fearless and she's highly intelligent and she's dramatic. You can't judge her by the norm. She's not conventional. She's extraordinary."
Ruiz has just 20 trials to her credit in her 26-year career. She assisted Serra in one other murder trial _ that of a Santa Cruz man convicted of second-degree murder for killing his neighbor and burning the body in his back yard.
Ruiz claims Knoller has become a scapegoat for years of injustice suffered by gays and lesbians. The victim of the dog attack, 33-year-old Whipple, was gay.
"Any lawyer would want to argue these facts against this murder charge," Ruiz said in a recent telephone interview. "It's just so compelling. From the very beginning, (Knoller) is telling the same story. This lady never thought she had anything to hide. She just wanted to tell the truth. … I think any lawyer would be moved by that truthfulness."
Ruiz, 53, came by theatrics honestly _ she spent a year at the American Conservatory Theater after attending San Francisco State University. She got a master's degree at the university in creative writing and is a published poet.
But Ruiz said she sees herself as an advocate for truth.
"She loves acting, but she's motivated by real life," said her husband and fellow lawyer, Laurence Lichter.
After earning a law degree from San Francisco's Hastings College of the Law, Ruiz went to work for a legal aid group in the largely Hispanic Mission District. She soon got herself arrested while observing police conduct, and in 1985 was arrested during a protest of U.S. arms shipments to El Salvador. She was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing and given probation.
"Nedra became a lawyer for the most altruistic of reasons _ to fight for justice," Lichter said. "It doesn't matter what kind of oppressed person _ migrant worker or prostitute. Nedra has a big heart and is inspired by causes."
While legal experts agree Ruiz has put on a passionate defense, they're less certain about its effectiveness.
"What really troubled me, more than the theatrics of her being down on the ground," Levenson said, "I thought she didn't look prepared. She's been all over the map in terms of her strategy. There's a pretty decent defense here, but it's getting lost in her mannerisms and her theatrics."
Philip Schnayerson, president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said, if nothing else, Ruiz captured jurors' attention.
"The worst thing that could happen in any attorney's opening or closing is the jury's daydreaming," he said.
Aside from the physical exertion of her 21/2-hour opening statement, Ruiz later angered nearly everyone in the courtroom by insinuating that Whipple's partner could have prevented her death by reporting earlier run-ins with the two massive dogs, Bane and Hera.
The move was described as "suicide lawyering" by Levenson. "If there's one way to get a jury to hate you, it's to beat up on the victim," she said.
Even Serra acknowledged Ruiz may have gone too far when she asked Smith whether her partner would still be alive if they had complained earlier.
But he said the line of questioning was necessary.
"This is part of the strategy of the defense," he said. "We're not blaming the victim. We're not blaming the victim's partner. We're saying nobody knew these dogs were dangerous."
KIM CURTIS, Associated Press Writer
Published 8:00 pm EST, Thursday, March 7, 2002