Murder suspect Reiser takes the stand

Testimony offers details of the day his wife went missing, but also highlights suspect Hans Reiser's life as a child genius, computer geek, and self-propelled learner.

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

OAKLAND, Calif.--When he was just 14 years old, Hans Reiser entered the admissions office at University of California at Berkeley, and eventually persuaded officials to enroll him without a high school diploma on the basis of his college entrance exams.

Thirty years later, the computer programmer finds himself again arguing his case, but this time it's before a crowded courtroom where he is facing charges he murdered his estranged wife, whose body has never been found.

Hans Reiser via Stanford University

The now graying 44-year-old Reiser, donning a blue sportcoat and an occasional smile, took the stand Monday morning at Alameda County Superior Court. He'll continue his testimony in an afternoon session and, by the looks of it, for many days to come.

Defense attorney William Du Bois kicked off his questioning by taking Reiser through his account of September 3, 2006, the last day Reiser says he saw his wife, Nina Reiser.

Reiser said his wife had come to the house to drop off the couple's two children. The adults made the kids some lunch, and the kids went downstairs to play on the computer. Then the two adults talked upstairs for about an hour, mostly about their ongoing divorce proceedings, Reiser said.

Reiser wanted to keep talking, but Nina said she had to go, and the kids came up and said goodbye to their mom, according to Reiser. Then Nina drove off and, Reiser said, he hasn't seen her since.

The testimony, of course, was far more detailed, and it meandered in many different directions. But perhaps most interesting were insights offered into Hans Reiser's personality. Clearly, Du Bois seems to be trying to draw out all things geeky about his client, perhaps in an effort to show Reiser--who is prominent in developer circles as the founder of the ReiserFS file system software available for Linux--as a mere wonk, not a murderer.

Reiser himself, who appears prone to go off on tangents in court and to lose sight of questions asked of him, grew up in Oakland and "hated" his junior high school because students had to sit in "neat little rows" and go at the teacher's pace. "The only part of school I liked was recess," he said.

Things changed when he started taking self-paced math classes through UC Berkeley's extension program, and he enrolled as a freshman at age 15. He spent his time either reading science fiction novels or playing computer games with other like-minded techies in Evans Hall, Reiser said. He described his Sundays playing Dungeons and Dragons for eight to 12 hours at a stretch from age 14 to his early 20s.

Reiser eventually dropped out of Cal, he said, to take a technical writing job with a small company that paid $10 an hour. "That was great at the time for me...for the first time I could afford sushi," he said.

He went on to outline other employers, including Microsoft and IBM. But those jobs prevented him from working on his two larger goals: his novel and his file-naming system.

The Reisers married in 1999, but separated in May 2004 and were undergoing contentious divorce proceedings when 31-year-old Nina, a Russia-trained obstetrician and gynecologist, disappeared.

Earlier in the trial, which began in November, the prosecution presented biological and trace evidence tying Reiser to Nina's death. But Reiser has long suggested that his wife might not be dead at all, but could be hiding in her native Russia after stealing money from her husband's former company Namesys. The couple's 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter now live with their maternal grandmother in St. Petersburg, Russia.