The Fall of Reiser

It is unusual, but not unheard of, for a murder case to go forward if a body has not been found. It is even rarer for the charge to be first-degree murder — and less common still for the defendant to be found guilty. Those were the exact circumstances, though, under which Hans Reiser was convicted Tuesday of the murder of his estranged wife, Nina.

Reiser’s six-month trial has caught the attention of the tech community because of his contribution to Linux: He was the lead designer of the ReiserFS, a journaled file system noted for its stable performance. ReiserFS is the default file system on the Suse Enterprise Linux distribution server.

The reasons behind his rise in the tech community — his superior intelligence and his seeming indifference to social cues — may be defining factors in his current predicament, an observation that surely must be unnerving to anyone who identifies with Reiser’s offbeat personality traits.

The trial over, Reiser is waiting for sentencing, which has been set for July 9. He is facing 25 years to life.

Uphill at Start

Judging from the publicity surrounding the case, Reiser seemed to have a good chance of being acquitted due to lack of evidence. To be sure, his actions following his wife’s disappearance did arouse suspicions: He washed the interior of his Honda with a hose. He got rid of the front seat. He began withdrawing large sums of money when the investigation got underway. When he was arrested, he was carrying his passport.

His relationship with his wife had been strained, and the two were involved in a contentious custody battle. The most damning evidence, though, was a trace of Nina’s blood found in his house.

Still, it was an uphill battle for Alameda County prosecutor Paul Hora — that is, until Reiser took the stand in his own defense.

During 11 days of testimony, Reiser explained his version of events. The Honda? It was dirty. The missing seat? He wanted to sleep comfortably inside the car. The jurors found his explanations lacking.

With the verdict still fresh, speculation abounds as to how the jury reached its decision. Reiser was hardly a charmer, and his demeanor on the stand — described as both cold and argumentative in press accounts — surely alienated more than a few members of the panel. Even Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman, outside of the jurors’ hearing, chastised the defendant for his behavior.

The guilty verdict came as a surprise to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, editor in chief of the Practical Technology blog. He knows Reiser — not well, he is quick to explain, but well enough — through their common interests in the industry.

His personal acquaintanceship with the man is not the basis for his surprise over the verdict, though. “Maybe he did do it,” he told LinuxInsider. “I don’t know. But based on what was presented in that courtroom, there is no way that conclusion can be reached. The decision seems to be based more on the fact that he was an arrogant ass on the stand than anything else.”

Taking the Stand

Making the decision to put a defendant on the stand is never easy, but the risks generally tend to outweigh the potential advantages.

It may be that a defense attorney or the defendant believes that the evidence supporting a guilty verdict is so overwhelming that taking the stand is the only way to counteract it, noted Robert Whorf, an associate professor of law at Barry University in Orlando.

“The only person able to provide innocent explanations for that evidence is the defendant — not an unusual predicament in circumstantial evidence cases,” he told LinuxInsider. “So, the lawyer [has] to decide — does providing an explanation for the circumstantial evidence outweigh the risk that jurors may react negatively to how the defendant comes across on the stand?”

Weighing the pros and cons often comes down to a crapshoot.

“It is true that no one but a defendant can best explain his or her actions,” said Richard Convertino, a former federal prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney with Convertino and Associates.

“The difficulty comes with how the defendant comes across to the jury” — and that, he told LinuxInsider, can be impossible to predict. “These are 12 people coming to the table with their different experiences, attitudes and prejudices. One juror might think someone crying is showing legitimate remorse; someone else might think they are crocodile tears. Then again, another jury might think if you don’t cry you aren’t sorry and must be guilty.”

In short, you don’t want to give the jury a peg to hang any particular hat on. Putting the defendant on the stand could fuel preconceived notions.

A defendant who takes on the stand against the advice of counsel is toying with trouble, Convertino said, especially when the case does not require explanation. Usually, but not always, a defendant who does this has a need to be proven innocent — not just not guilty.

Such a defendant may think all the jurors need is a logical explanation — or that mere force of personality will win them over. These are, in fact, potential weaknesses that a skilled prosecutor is likely to exploit during cross-examination.

The Successful Geek

Given Reiser’s professional success, he may have assumed that the trait that worked well for him in the past — namely, his intelligence — would serve him equally well during the trial, Convertino suggested.

The geek factor may also have come into play — programmers are stereotypically obtuse at reading social cues. In his blog, “Was Reiser Really Found Guilty of Being a Hacker?” Vaughan-Nichols writes, “If you look through Eric S. Raymond’s The Jargon File — the essential guide to the language of hackers — you’ll find a section of the Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality. The very first paragraph describes both the Reiser I know and the one who insisted on taking the stand to a T. Hackers have relatively little ability to identify emotionally with other people. … Unsurprisingly, hackers also tend towards self-absorption, intellectual arrogance, and impatience with people and tasks perceived to be wasting their time.

“That’s not the description of someone who’s going to charm a jury,” Vaughan-Nichols concludes.

Whither ReiserFS?

An appeal is almost certain to be filed. However, the Linux community is wondering what will happen with ReiserFS now that the lead developer will be absent — at least in the near term.

Given that Reiser was the prime mover behind ReiserFS, it is probably going to be de-emphasized within the Linux kernel, said Bernard Golden, CEO of open source management company Navica.

“There are other viable file system formats for Linux, and one of those will probably come to the fore,” he told LinuxInsider.

One contender is EXT3, which Golden uses in his own operations. “It offers the same level of functionality.”

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