The People of the State of California versus Hans Reiser

Reiser is in recess until 3-17-08.

Posted Friday, March 7, 2008

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The People of the State of California versus Hans Reiser

The defendant in this case, Hans Reiser, a computer guru, was in a difficult divorce that threatened the viability of his small company, his life’s work. His wife, a beautiful Russian physician-in-training, was less than faithful and a spendthrift. In due course the couple separated, filed for divorce, bickered about child custody (two single digit kids) and money.

Flash forward to the Labor Day weekend in 2006. After the predictable intra-marital squabble, Hans was delivered the children for a visit on Sunday. At that time he was living with his mother and driving one of her cars, an older Honda CRX. But Mom was in Nevada, due to return on Tuesday evening. Before wife Nina moved to depart, the couple argued over divorce issues for an hour.

Nina hasn’t been seen since. She is not in Russia according to her mother. She has had no contact with anyone. Her car, a van full of recently purchased groceries, was found intact, parked a few miles away on a trajectory that did not lead home. Inside the van, in a kind of Pompeii tableau – everything was in place, purse, credit cards, cash, a rent check and her cell phone with its battery removed. Nina was gone along with her car keys.

Many days later, police discovered Hans’s CRX in a place of concealment: the passenger seat had been removed; there was standing water on the floorboard and they found a sleeping bag cover with a telltale spot of Nina’s blood.

A search warrant was somewhat belatedly issued and executed at the home of Hans’ mother. Police discovered that the hard drive of Hans’ computer had been removed and a single telltale smudge on the pillar in the front entryway revealed both Hans’ blood and Nina’s.

There is much more to the story, of course — Nina’s two boyfriends, dark suggestions from the defense, hints of skullduggery and embezzlement – most without evidentiary support. A couple of vivid images haunt us, mental pictures that this jury will not quite be able to discount: a retired Oakland cop who, after seeing Hans’ menace, warned Nina to arm herself; a dream-drawing by Hans’s little boy (a remembered glimpse or a fantasy?) depicting Dad carrying a mommy sized burden down the stairs.

We’re deep into the trial now with Hans on the stand and the prospect of a week long interruption before the case resumes.

My commentary has been extensive to date… and this case goes on and on…


Husband-wife murders are all too common. But the missing body cases are not common; and they are very important. All murder cases eliminate at least one witness – the victim. When additional evidence is concealed or destroyed, alarm bells have to ring. The “missing-body wife-murder” cases are dangerous – as a mater of the larger social policy – whenever a killer notoriously gets away with it because we almost certainly will get a new trend: Murder could become the divorce de jour.


This case tests the ability of a jury to convict when a central mystery remains. In the Reiser case, the mystery is not whether Nina has been involuntarily removed from the scene, nor even whether she is still alive, but How did Hans – if he is the killer – so successfully get rid of the body so effectively, given the time constraints.


Alien abduction is easier to sell than the notion that Nina Reiser is alive somewhere, gloating about how she really stuck it to Hans.

The fact that Nina and Hans fought bitterly about child custody and money supplies a motive to kill — and to be killed, not a motive to flee – penniless and childless. [There is no real evidence so far to show that Nina had some huge cache of money; instead it shows her as a spendthrift with Hans’ money, as tending to live beyond her means and at the edge of bankruptcy.]

Men kill all the time over these issues and women get killed, but the roles are rarely reversed.

The Reiser case inhabits that boundary zone between “dark suspicion” and “damned sure”, between common sense confidence and nagging doubt. To sell a defense theory, the defense needs to stay within the “reasonable alternative” zone.

“Reasonable doubt” is an elastic, inherently subjective legal term: It can be expanded to benefit a cuddly, victimized defendant or contracted to convict a cold, lying one; it can be expanded by a jury made hostile to the supposed victim or contracted by jurors feeling more protective of her.

As matters stood before Hans took the stand, he seemed to have lost the “he just couldn’t have done it” advantage. Whether or not Hans Reiser can persuade 12 people that he could not have killed Nina is unlikely – but this is secondary to the real issue: Did he? During the first three days of his testimony, there was no cross examination. Hans denied killing Nina while painting a dismal picture of their marital disputes, a situation so severe that some jurors might find several motives to kill her. At stake is Hans’ credibility. If he is caught in one important act of deception with this jury, the defense is toast.

The very least sales resistance: Why doesn’t the defense avoid the “Nina is alive and protected by shadowy KBG figures” notion? Why doesn’t the defense simply advocate the theory that Nina was the victim of some local thug or abductor? There are several, at least nominally plausible possibilities: A Craig’s List stalker, a former aggrieved boyfriend, or a kidnapper who mistakenly thought that there was a potential ransom to be had.


Assume for the sake of discussion that the Reiser killing was an impulsive, angry act, followed by an “Oh sh.., what do I do now?” Let us also assume for the purposes of analysis that the killer was Hans: What was his logical sequence of actions? What were the constraints?


(1) Hans has to get the body out of sight ASAP. The CRX in the garage has three advantages as a corpse container:

(a) It is out of sight and never used by Mom.

(b) It is self sealing. The decomposition smells could be temporarily contained when the windows are rolled up.

(c) It has wheels.

(2) He has to get Nina’s van away from the scene as he reasonably can and still get back on foot to the house before his absence causes a problem.


(1) The kids are home.

(2) Mom is returning soon.

This means that Hans (again, we’re assuming for this discussion that he’s the killer) has about 40 hours, but only when the kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. This favors taking action under the cover of night. By the way, the very difficulties that these circumstances present to a killer seem to undercut the notion that Hans would have planned the killing in advance; hence the greater plausibility of an impulsive, even “accidental” killing followed by hasty improvisation, taking full advantage of the time windows. And these constraints imply a double move of the body:

(a) A quick relocation out of the garage to a place of concealment with a turnaround time of, say three hours or so;

(b) A later relocation to a more secure hiding place when the kids are in other hands, or more time is available.


There are two key time frames during which the hypothetical “Hans-as-killer” could exploit the circumstances to hide or destroy evidence:

(a) Before Nina is discovered to be among the missing – from about 4 PM on September 3, 2006 until the end of school on September 5th or the morning of September 6th when Mom wakes up, after having gotten home from Nevada – 40-50 hours;

(b) Before the police can secure the first search warrants – about 10 days.

Assume that the murder would have been on September 3, 2006:

· On September 13, a search warrant is executed at the Exeter house with cadaver dogs. [Why wait so long? Oakland police Capt. Jeff Loman: “We don’t have any evidence of foul play.”] The house is searched again on the 14th.

· A search warrant of Hans’ person is executed September 28, 2006. DNA is obtained; he’s carrying cash; his cellphone battery is disconnected

· Hans is arrested October 10, 2006


No credible reason for Nina to disappear so suddenly, covertly and thoroughly?

No innocent explanation for the position and condition of Nina’s car, purse, money, groceries and cell phone?

No trail or trace leading to any plausible corpse disposal location, other than the washed down, partly seatless Honda CRX with a sleeping bag cover revealing a DNA-identified, almost invisible blood spot, belonging to the victim?

A constrained timeline for Hans to have hidden the body.
No other suspects?


Why did Hans remove the hard drive and where did he put it?
Why did Hans remove the CRX seat and were is it?
Why did Hans wash the CRX and driveway?
Why was Hans so evasive throughout?
How did Nina’s blood get on the post?
How did Nina’s blood end up in a bag in the car, after it was cleaned?
Who, besides Hans demonstrated a scary hostility to Nina?
Just how implausible are the “Hans-got-rid-of-the-body” scenarios?
Has Hans lied about any of this?


Hans will finish testifying. The defense will conclude with one – or more – other witnesses, including a DNA expert. Then the prosecution will call rebuttal witnesses. All this begins on March 17.

After that the case will be argued…

I intend to post a Guide to the Arguments, Part Three, as soon as both sides have rested … and so have I.

Stay tuned….

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