THE REISER TRIAL
TWO BAD DAYS FOR THE DEFENSE
Wednesday, the DA called Nina’s girlfriend Ellen (she was the friend who picked up the children from school when Nina vanished). Her testimony shed light on the timeline and I suspect the effect on the jury was devastating.
It seems that, on the day Nina vanished, she was to meet Ellen at 6 PM for dinner, after dropping off the kids with Hans and picking up groceries. Nina apparently changed her mind, taking the kids with her to Berkeley Bowl before going to Hans. When Nina didn’t show for dinner, Ellen left a message on Nina’s cell phone (now recovered and messages retrieved). That was 6:30 PM. When she called Nina again at 9 PM., Nina’s cell was turned off (consistent with having the batteries removed).
Ellen picked up the kids at an Oakland elementary School (the kids attended the Montessori School earlier in the day). This is when she called Hans to ask about Nina. When Ellen told him (with police listening in) that she was last seen at his place, Hans said “I need to talk to my lawyer”. Hans didn’t ask about Nina at all in that conversation.
You can be certain that, after hearing this testimony, not one juror is willing to believe that Nina had just decided to abandon her children and flee to Russia, leaving behind her car, wallet, money and driver’s license.
DuBois attempted with little success to use his opportunity to cross examine Ellen (she to portray Nina’s relationship with her nice boyfriend (Mr. Zografos) as less than fully trusting, and to draw out derogatory information about the “bad” boyfriend, Mr. Sturgeon. Neither effort yielded anything materially useful to the defense.
Dubois asked Ellen whether she had talked to the Reiser boy about his statement at the preliminary hearing before judge Conger (not before the jury) where he described Mom as having actually left the Exeter house after saying goodbye. This, of course, is absolutely crucial to the defense, because if Nina got to her car, it becomes difficult to imagine how Hans could have gotten away from the kids, killed her (presumably not in front of the neighbors) and spirited the body away.
Ellen couldn’t recall anything like that. But DuBois persisted in the line of questioning, hoping to imprint the matter in the jury’s mind. This was a high stakes moment in the trial. It appears that the boy’s prior testimony is not going to be read to the jury, so the defense is stuck with the more ambiguous version he gave in this courtroom. It also appears that Judge Goodman, aware of the high stakes for the defense, had DuBois on a very tight leash. This was the exchange:
Judge Goodman: “Mr. DuBois, if you comment on the evidence that’s not before the jury one more time, I’m going to find you in contempt… Then DuBois began to refer to the boy’s earlier testimony. [Note the tone. In friendlier exchanges, the attorneys in Judge Goodman’s court are often addressed by their first names.]
Judge Goodman: “I don’t care what he testified to at this point…I know what you’re doing, and you know what you’re doing, and I don’t appreciate it.” DuBois tried to respond.
Judge Goodman: “Mr. DuBois, I’m warning you for one more time, and it’s going to cost you money. The objection is sustained.”
This was the classic pre-contempt warning, followed by a visit to chambers.
Today, the DA called Hans’ neighbor, Jack, a building contractor. He’d been gone on the Labor Day weekend, but when he returned on September 5, he noticed Hans at 10 PM hosing down his driveway. The project took about half an hour.
Jack: “It was odd, even for Hans. We’re outdoors a lot. We never really see Hans participating in any exterior activities like cleaning or watering. He just comes and goes. I just thought it was kind of strange, especially because I had no idea what he was doing, like ‘Washing the driveway?’ It seemed out of character, that’s all.”
It was a hot summer night, but Hans was “dressed for winter” wearing a hunting jacket. Jack did not see Reiser’s CRX on the property that night or the next day.
In cross examination, DuBois tried to establish that Jack didn’t like Hans and that Hans was not a good neighbor. The defense purpose is to later be use this in argument to discredit the witness for bias. It won’t work.
Then the DA called Natalie who was in charge of the children’s after school program on the day Nina picked them up for the last time. Ellen had come by to pick up the kids at 2:30, but Natalie wouldn’t immediately release them. She called Hans, leaving a message. Hans didn’t call back. Then –about 5 PM, a few minutes before Ellen came back for the kids – Hans arrived. He mentioned nothing about Nina or the calls. It seems he was not there to pick up the kids – just wanted to chat about the after school enrollment policies. The witness remarked that his demeanor was strange.
Natalie: “He was very nervous-like. There was no eye contact with me whatsoever, just very hyper. Was not calm at all.”
Reiser agreed to let Ellen pick up the kids.
The afternoon witness was Mary Jo, the employer in charge of a large, Bay Area nonprofit that had tested, interviewed and ultimately offered Nina a $50,000 a year position with full benefits. Nina accepted on September 1 and was to start on September 21.
The defense cross examination attempted to show the limited nature of the background check for new hires. That line of questioning went nowhere.
The jury now knows vividly what it earlier only heard in outline. The cumulative power of this evidence continues to shift the inquiry and focus to – How could Hans have pulled this off?
If Hans killed his wife, his behavior at the after school program not long after Nina was last seen alive was consistent with someone who had just realized that he’s “solved” his marital problem only to acquire a new one: What do I do with the body?
When this jury retires to deliberate some time next year, they will ask for a map and a calendar.
At this stage in the trial Hans is looking to this jury more and more like the one person who can answer the question: What really happened to Nina? The jury will probably never buy Hans’ conspiracy defense, leaving his lawyer to develop an effective reasonable doubt argument in spite of his client’s “KGB” theories. The things that Hans must sell personally, while getting through a long and challenging cross examination are: (1) Nina left alive and (2) Here’s why the blood traces were found where they were. A serious failure on the witness stand by this defendant could greatly help the prosecution. But – unless Hans actually confesses – the DA has an evidentiary hole to close.
To convict Hans of killing Nina, the prosecution will need to advance at least one plausible theory, consistent with all the evidence and supported by at least some of it, covering the following questions: Where and when did the killing probably happen? When did Hans have “free’ time after Nina was at his door, time when he was unobserved? What method of body disposal would be capable of frustrating the authorities for all this time? What access did Hans have to that method?
But some of the heavy lifting has already been done. All members of this jury now understand why Hans would want to kill Nina, and many of them are beginning to get used to the idea that he was actually emotionally capable of doing it,