Old Wounds

News reports about the lawyers whose dog killed Diane Whipple have stirred unpleasant memories among a few of their former clients

When I first heard about the tragic death of Diane Whipple, who was attacked by a vicious dog inside her apartment building, I was horrified along with the rest of America. My heart went out to Whipple and her family; I even felt bad for the dog's owners who, I thought, must be emotionally ruined by feelings of sadness and guilt.

Then I heard that the dog's masters were lawyers Robert E. Noel and Marjorie F. Knoller. Knowing that, I was not totally surprised when the husband-and-wife team coldly blamed Whipple for her own demise on national television. Nor was I completely floored by the revelation that they soon afterward adopted a convict son who is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a racist prison gang. I can't even say I was that shocked by a recent Associated Press report of a search warrant for "any materials or correspondence describing sexual acts by Noel or Knoller that involve dogs." I was a bit perturbed, however, when Noel and Knoller started bragging about doing free legal work for homeless people.

You see, I used to know Bob Noel and Marge Knoller; in fact, they were my lawyers. They also did some lawyering for a number of my friends a few years ago. None of us has nurtured warm feelings for them in the interim, though, because in each case we felt that our association with them had turned out badly.

It did not take long for the phone calls to start.

"Can you believe it?"

"They adopted a white supremacist."

"They blame the victim."

"What about the ... uh ... sex?"

We reconstructed our experiences with Noel and Knoller, trying to fit the bits and pieces into a pattern that could explain how the lawyers became national pariahs.

Elzie Lee Byrd, in particular, took the re-emergence of Noel and Knoller hard. For 20 years, Byrd and his family had lived in Geneva Towers, a public housing high-rise in San Francisco that was demolished several years ago by the federal government. Byrd, a tenant leader, had fought long and hard to create tenant ownership of the affordable housing development that eventually replaced the Towers.

In 1992, Noel and Knoller contacted the Geneva Towers Tenants Association and offered to represent tenants on a contingency basis. Byrd's first association with the couple was positive. In 1994, the lawyers won a small monetary judgment for Byrd after Geneva Towers security guards harassed him and his two sons.

But Byrd's dream of homeownership collapsed in 1995, when he lost his Geneva Towers apartment after winning a court trial against management. The jury found that management had breached Byrd's lease because his apartment was "uninhabitable." But then, paradoxically, the jury also ordered him to pay nearly $6,000 in back rent for his uninhabitable unit. Byrd was evicted because he could not come up with the money.

To this day, Byrd holds his lawyers -- Noel and Knoller -- responsible for creating the legal snafu that made his family homeless: Byrd believes that Noel's arguments confused the jury.

Geneva Towers tenant leader Marie Harrison was also evicted (and made homeless) after "winning" a nearly identical case.

"I thought Bob was messing up the case so bad that I stood up in court and started talking for myself," remembers Harrison. "The judge told me to sit down, I already had a lawyer."

Byrd and Harrison aren't the only ones with bad memories.

"Noel did a lot of bragging ... but he didn't deliver as a lawyer," says Willie Ratcliff, publisher of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper in the Bayview/Hunters Point District. Ratcliff hired Noel and Knoller to fight the eviction of his newspaper from a suite of leaky offices on Third Street in 1996. Ratcliff lost, too.

"Noel wasn't nothing in front of the judge," Ratcliff remembers. "He talked a big game outside the courtroom, but inside the courtroom he could not open his damn mouth. He was a teddy bear. After we lost, he said he wanted to appeal our little eviction all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. I told him we could not afford to have him on our side anymore."

My own experience with the couple followed a similar pattern -- all of us typically liked Noel and Knoller at first, but over time the relationships soured.

When I first got to know Noel and Knoller, they seemed fairly normal, even good-hearted. I knew they worked for guards and prisoners at Pelican Bay state prison because they often talked about driving hundreds of miles to Crescent City and about suing the California Department of Corrections. And they seemed to have no problem hanging out in the projects -- places that most white people fear to go.

In 1994, I was working as a consultant to the board of directors of a tenant management corporation in a Hunters Point public housing project. I recommended Noel and Knoller to the board, which hired them as corporate counsel. Frankly, I enjoyed the couple's combative legal style. Their forte was faxing long, statute-laced letters of vociferous complaint to bureaucrats at the San Francisco Housing Authority.

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