Aug 22, 2008

Six years after having gone to prison, Marjorie Knoeller stood up and was taken off to prison once more, for the same crime. She did not look back. And not out of determination. She wasn't saying,"Look at me, how strong I am." Rather, it was as though to say, "I don't exist. But even if I did, who would be there to receive my look?"

Actually, there was one person who would have received her look, given a gracious smile in return, and shouted out,"It'll be okay, Marjorie. I'll come and see you as soon as I can. It'll be okay." That would be Anna, who arrived in a black dress, at first glance a party-black dress. She had her gray hair just done, had it curly and glamorous, and she wore big dark wraparound glasses, the way movie stars do. She had Henry Miller with her, with his red sweater, walking listlessly and panting, not looking good frankly, head down, dragging his hips. You wondered who was more blind, Anna or her guide. As the dog passed one of the pretties made fun, made little animal noises and scoffed.

And that was that. Marjorie Knoeller, who when she arrived had the expression of a plastic blow-up doll, was lead away like a stray cow to permanent pasture and the victim's partner and sister, and friends and acquaintances, all sighed with relief, and cheered underneath their breath. "Yes," they said and looked across the aisle at the press and other perceived enemies. You'd have thought you were in Argentina with the mothers of "the disappeared."

This colloquium of victims was last seen at the first sentencing hearing in March 2002, but six years later they looked no different. And the mood and look was the same: all in J. Crew and long hair, freshly trimmed, beauties every one, no make-up, no earrings, no body paint. When one looked to the left to see who was on the other side of the courtroom, it was as if they all looked to the left. Militarily, on parade, as one. It's the kind of distingue-beauty and precision you see in a group of anything that's has come of age, that's worked long and hard together to be seen as more than just acceptable. If amazons could be doctors and designers and the celebrated creators of black market derivatives, that's what they were like.

Sharon Smith, the 'lead victim', as someone in the gallery said, did not have her mate with her. For good reason; that would have muddied the moment. Sharon appeared as the aggrieved widow, somberly dressed; in every detail, appropriate and sympathetic. Yet there was something about her demeanor, or the idea of all that had happened, which undermined her dignity. If you knew that she had collected a sizeable settlement from the building where the manslaughter/murder took place. If you knew that she took up with her new partner not long after the death of Diane... If you listened to her speaking to reporters, saying in effect, "No one knows how difficult it has been for ME for the last six years." "Me" was the focus. Nothing about Diane. No abstraction about the crime or the punishment. And no explanation of why it was important to send Marjorie the Hollow back to prison. No cry to deter these kinds of crimes...

No, here the drive seemed for revenge not reform. But why?

Remember, this wasn't a crime-wave crime. Of course, there are many cases in which people don't mind their dogs who then go off and injure or even kill someone, and making owners mindful is a good thing, particularly with the increasing number of 'war dogs'. But those cases are inevitably treated as 'accidents.' Or at worst, manslaughter.

In this case, the jury voted for second degree murder, for the idea that the defendant consciously used their pet like a night club bouncer or a body guard. To intimidate, and in a sense, to project a force that the owners themselves could never possess.

If you have ever seen some of California's other famous victims, you notice the contrast immediately. Think of the great heroes of the victims rights movement in California: Doris Tate, Sharon Sellito, Harriet Solarno, and many others, even Marc Klaas. All lost blood, daughters or brothers, but they turned grief into something else. Now of course you could say, "yes, but isn't there always a desire for the limelight among these crime victims? Isn't that always part of it?"

Perhaps. In my experience, grief sometimes becomes an excuse for men to follow their rage, to indulge an anger long repressed. For women, it may be the opportunity to seize an identity, to have real power.

On the other hand, I think of my stepmother after the murder of her only daughter, and in a way that was even more horrendous than this 'dog mauling.' Knives instead of teeth, for one; a long drawn out kidnapping for another. But my stepmother never did anything in front of cameras, and she's an actress, she could have used the moment for all it was worth. Instead, she hid out. She became invisible. The pain was too great and it never let up. Ever. Still, she has hosted events for victims to raise money to help other victims. For years she went to Doris Tate's, not to hear Doris communicate with spirits from the other side, but to help other victim's live day to day with the unimaginable.

But Sharon Smith's response is different. By some accounts she has worked for the empowerment of people, and for lesbians in particular, and all to the good. But there's been no effort that I know of to work on behalf of victims of dog attacks or to help victims of other crimes. Or to educate citizens about these dangers.... And so you wonder: why is it so important to send Marjorie Knoeller back to prison. This is a woman who belongs in an institution but not in a prison. And she may well serve a sentence, in addition to time already served, which will be longer than for a 'murder of passion'. Or even a convicted drunk driver who gets in a car and runs over someone.

The question deserves some kind of an answer, for her, if not for the rest of us. And so I would suggest that Marjorie symbolizes a more personal kind of villain. Look at Marjorie in this light, in all her banality, in all her ugliness, in all her arrogant ignorance, in the way she not only didn't mind her dogs, but didn't mind life itself; didn't distinguish, perhaps couldn't distinguish, between right and wrong... And in this way does she perhaps appear as the personification of all those people who have said or thought or conveyed the notion — as mother or aunt, neighbor or stranger — "I hate lesbians, I won't tolerate you, I hate what you look like and what you do with each other, and what you stand for, and how act so proud...."

Is Marjorie the whipping post more for what she conveys by her manner than even for her crime?

Meanwhile, Marjorie's husband, the true villain in the case, Robert Noel, didn't appear at the hearing. As always he is never where he is needed. I was told he would not be permitted into the court and was told to stay away. Who knows. In the end, de didn't do anything to help his wife. Not now, not at her trial. Not even when it was clear his sentence was fixed; he never filed an amicus brief; he never said, "I got these dogs. It was my idea from the start. Cornfed was my client. It's all my fault. I knew Marjorie couldn't handle those dogs. We fought about it often. It's my doing. Please don't take out all your wrath on her...."

Or something to that effect. But there was nothing and Sharon never addressed his absence.

As an aside, the court reporter looked exactly like Noel. And for a moment I thought it was a trick or else Noel had smuggled himself in, clubbed the court reporter and taken his place, to have a first-hand view. To suddenly stand up, a last minute Lothario and beg the judge on his wife's behalf. But that was not the case. Anna told me Noel was still out in Fairfield making horse bisquets. He sent some to Anna; Henry took one bite and got badly sick.

1 comment:

Anjuli said...

You pulled back the curtain and revealed the emptiness within. Your words are weighing heavy on my mind- they have taken my thoughts to deep places. I know they will follow me into my dreams tonight. I was especially struck by the part-

She did not look back. And not out of determination. She wasn't saying,"Look at me, how strong I am." Rather, it was as though to say, "I don't exist. But even if I did, who would be there to receive my look?"

this made me feel like crying.