Hans Reiser's 'geek defense' could backfire

The Linux programmer's attorney argues his nerdy client is socially inept, strange, and paranoid--but not a murderer. Will the jury buy it?

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read

This post was updated with the correct spelling of David Kravets' name.

The most undisputed assertion in the trial of Hans Reiser, the Linux programmer accused of killing his estranged wife, is that he's a geek to the nth degree. He's been called strange, socially inept, devoid of emotion, and paranoid...and no one disagrees.

Hans Reiser via Stanford University

Even the typically easy-going Alameda County Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman, who is presiding over the Oakland, Calif.-based trial, called Reiser arrogant and rude and at one point, in the jury's absence, said "there are not enough words in the English language to describe what you are,'' according to news accounts.

What remains unclear, however, as the jury starts deliberating Reiser's fate, is whether Reiser's eccentric behavior following the disappearance of his wife, Nina, was the result of his extreme intellect and nerdy personality...or a guilty conscience.

Reiser, 44, is known to the technology world as the founder of the ReiserFS file system software, which is available for Linux. Nina Reiser was last seen alive on September 3, 2006, in Oakland, Calif., as she was dropping off the couple's two children for the Labor Day weekend. At the time, the couple had been involved in a bitter divorce.

Despite exhaustive searches by authorities, Nina's body has never been found. Reiser has long suggested she could be hiding in her native Russia after stealing money from her husband's former company, Namesys.

There was very little forensic evidence presented during the six-month trial--only a tiny amount of Nina's blood found on a pillar in Reiser's home and another speck on a sleeping bag cover in his car. So the jury, which is expected to receive instructions from the judge Tuesday afternoon, is left to rely largely on circumstantial evidence, as Alameda County District Attorney Paul Hora pointed out in his closing statements last week. "We don't know it all, but we know enough," Hora said.

"You may dislike him--that would put you in the majority of people who know him--but he didn't commit the crime."
--Reiser's attorney William Du Bois to the jury

And much of that evidence surrounds Reiser's behavior following Nina's disappearance, such has his hosing down of the inside of his car, which he said seemed a logical way to clean it; his removal of his car's passenger seat, which he said allowed more room for him to sleep in his car; and his attempts to elude police. Arguing the so-called "geek defense," Reiser's attorney William Du Bois said those behaviors may have been odd, but aren't evidence of murder. In his closing statements, he likened his client to an odd "duckbill platypus," and later stipulated to the fact that Reiser "isn't normal," according to news accounts.

"You may dislike him--that would put you in the majority of people who know him--but he didn't commit the crime," Du Bois said, adding that the jury need look no further than this video presented in court of Reiser giving a seminar at Google headquarters about his file system to see he's a "genuine nerd," according to news accounts.

And that theory may work on some jurors, especially those who are familiar with such ubergeeks. After having seen Reiser in action--his rambling testimony, his arguments with the lawyers and even the judge, his bizarre remarks, and his lack of emotion--they may have grown to understand and empathize with Reiser and might not see him as capable of murder.

Defense could backfire
They might however, go the opposite way, and conclude that Reiser's social ineptitude makes him all the more capable of murdering the mother of his children. And the fact that Reiser took the stand against the advice of his own lawyer, might also work against him. David Kravets, who's been covering the trial for Wired, pointed out that Reiser went into details on the stand--like admitting he was trying to hide his car from police--that the jury wouldn't have been privy to had he kept quiet. "Judging by the jurors' reactions, they didn't seem to be buying what the defendant was saying," Kravets said.

The trial has its many followers, fueled by online news coverage and forums. The San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Lee, who has been live-blogging from the courthouse, is amazed at the "vehement back and forth" on the comments section of his trial blog from people convinced of either Reiser's guilt or his innocence. (I interviewed Kravets and Lee for Tuesday's CNET News.com daily podcast.)

Alexander Lyamin, for one, who worked for Reiser's Namesys as a systems administrator and tester, has been watching the trial and doesn't see it playing well for Reiser.

"It's more like a very personal apocalypse," he said in an e-mail, noting that Reiser never could grasp that how you communicate something is just as important, if not more, as what you are trying to communicate.

"Can you be more stupid than aggravating the judge AND your lawyer? No? Oh yes. You can," Lyamin wrote. "You can aggravate the whole kernel community."


Inside look at the Reiser trial
News.com's Michelle Meyers talks to reporters David Kravets and Henry Lee about the "geek defense" and live-blogging from the courtroom.
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