April 28, 2008

Platypus defense falls flat

The highly anticipated verdict in the Hans Reiser case came in just moments ago: Despite the absence of his wife's body, the Oakland, California computer programmer is guilty of first-degree murder.

You will recall from my previous blog post that Reiser mounted a highly unusual defense, saying he was a platypus but not a murderer.

Unfortunately, the comparison to the odd, quasi-reptilian mammal may have backfired when it turned out that the platypus is not as cute and cuddly as the defense attorney tried to portray it. Indeed, it is one of the few venomous mammals: A spur on the male's hind foot delivers a powerful venom capable of killing other animals its size.

As is not uncommon in high-profile murder cases, the two sides also posited competing psychiatric diagnoses for the oddball computer programmer.

The defense asserted that Reiser suffers from Asperger's Disorder, a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum in which an individual has normal to high intelligence but major problems in social interaction. The prosecution countered that Reiser has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a diagnosis more in line with cold-bloodedly killing your wife when she decides to divorce you.

Some pundits doubted that the prosecution could win a first-degree murder verdict. After all, the body of Reiser's wife was never found, and the case was purely circumstantial.

But in his rebuttal argument to the jury last week, prosecutor Paul Hora handled those case weaknesses masterfully. He placed two large easels in front of the jury. On one was a jigsaw puzzle with all of the many pieces of circumstantial evidence against Reiser. On the other was a picture of Reiser's Russian immigrant wife, Nina Reiser. One by one, prosecutor Paul Hora transferred the puzzle pieces onto the picture of the victim. As he removed pieces from the original puzzle, an underlying image of defendant Hans Reiser emerged. At the end, only two jigsaw pieces were missing: "location of body" and "method of murder."

Ultimately, those missing pieces did not seem to bother the jury. After a five-month trial, it deliberated less than three full days before discarding potential compromise verdicts such as second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter and rendering the most severe verdict allowable.

The verdict is notable because the prosecution did not present any evidence of premeditation or deliberation, required elements in first-degree murder. The jury apparently inferred the necessary mental state based on Reiser's arrogant, off-putting performance during 10 days on the witness stand.

"I'm sure he negatively impressed the jurors." defense attorney William Du Bois told journalists outside the courtroom. The verdict, he acknowledged, was not a complete surprise.

My previous essay on the platypus defense is here. Newspaper reporter Henry K. Lee’s contemporaneous news blog on the trial is here. A new book, Erased, describes dozens of similar wife-killing cases in recent U.S. jurisprudence, some of which were similar to the Reiser case in that juries returned first-degree murder convictions despite missing bodies. (See my review of that book here.)

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