Hans Reiser Convicted of First-Degree Murder in the Disappearance of His Wife

by Shaker Jay in Oregon

Hans Reiser, a programmer known best for the Linux filesystem that bears his name, was convicted Monday of first-degree murder of his estranged wife, Nina Reiser. Last seen on September 3, 2006 after dropping their kids off as Hans Reiser's house, she was supposed to meet her best friend that evening, but never arrived. Her minivan was found six days later; her purse was still in the van and bags of groceries were rotting inside. Friends started a website (ninareiser.com; site is currently offline) and billboards were posted in Oakland to spread the word and enlist the public's help in finding Nina.

Eventually, police narrowed their investigation to Nina's husband, Hans Reiser. On October 10, 2006, Hans was arrested on suspicion of murder.

The prosecution based their case on strong circumstantial evidence. Some of Nina's blood was found in Hans' house; Hans removed and disposed of the passenger seat of his car, and washed out the inside with so much water that almost an inch of standing water was still in the car when police examined the car. Hans Reiser bought books on police investigative techniques after Nina's disappearance, engaged in "counter-surveillence techniques" in avoiding the police on September 18 , 2006, and when he was arrested he was carrying almost $9,000 and his passport. Hans Reiser spent $5,000 on retaining a lawyer even before Nina's disappearance was blamed on foul play. Both Hans' and Nina's cellphones were found with the batteries removed.

The defense waffled between asserting that Nina wasn't dead—she was kidnapped, faking her death, or fled back to Russia—and asserting that if Nina was dead, Hans wasn't the one that killed her. The defense tried to pin Reiser's unusual behavior on what is coming to be known as the "geek defense"; Reiser is simply a misunderstood programmer with poor social skills and an overly analytical mind. Hans was disruptive in the courtroom; his lawyer had to ask witnesses to restate their answers because Hans kept asking him questions, and at one point the judge threatened to bar Hans Reiser from his own trial. Hans took the stand against his lawyer's advice and offered one highly-implausible reason after another for his behavior. (For an "obessively logical" computer geek, Hans Reiser appears not to be familiar with Occam's Razor.)

  • The missing car seat? Hans was sleeping in his car and removed the seat for extra space.

  • The standing water in the car? One of Resier's kids spilled food in the car, so he washed it out and he assumed that the manufacturer would have placed drain holes in the floorboards. (This was the same car that he removed the seat from so he could sleep in it.)

  • Why did Hans show up to pick up his kids from school the day after Nina was last seen, when it was her day to pick them up and Nina wasn't even presumed missing? He was just stopping by to place his mother on the list on people allowed to collect the kids.

  • The books on murder investigations? He's a computer geek! He was curious to know how murder investigations worked, just in case the police decided to question him about killing Nina.

  • Why did he try to evade police? Hans believed the police were out to get him.

  • On April 28, 2008, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder; in an interview, one juror stated that the strong circumstantial evidence as well as Hans' behavior after and lack of sympathy for Nina's disappearance led to his conviction.

    The truly appalling part of the story is the attitude of Reisers' many admirers, which reads like a laundry list of excuses for male privilege.

  • A blog appeared proclaiming "Hans Reiser is Innocent", predicting his eventual acquital and claiming that Nina owed money to the Russian Mafia and "clearly faked her death".

  • Another website accuses Nina's friend Ellen Doren; the only thing their theories lack are evidence and a motive.

  • Articles on Slashdot quickly filled with wild conspiracy theories—Nina faked her death! Nina fled back to Russia! Evidence was suppressed! You can be convicted for being a geek!—and tried to minimize the seriousness of the charges. (Hans Reiser is a talented programmer! What has his wife done? They should give Hans a laptop so he can keep programming in prison!)

  • In the minds of his supporters, Hans' unusual behavior could be explained away as ADHD, Asperger's, or being "too geeky". In the face of every opinion to the contrary, Nina was a scheming shrew who only married Hans to gain a USA visa, ruined his business by embezzling money (unproven) and sleeping with his business partner, and was an unfit mother. Nina's restraining order against her husband proves that it's "too easy to get a TRO". Police officers who testified that Hans was a danger to Nina were conveniently ignored. Sean Sturgeon—Hans' former business partner with whom Nina had an affair—confessed to the murders of eight other people during the trial; despite the fact that Sean Sturgeon was not convicted of murdering anyone (police have been unable to link Sturgeon to any murders), maintains that he did not kill Nina, and was never called to testify in Hans' trial, Hans' supporters trumpet the judge's decision to bar Sturgeon's confessions from being mentioned to the jury as proof that Hans is being railroaded.

    I don't know Hans Reiser other than through his work on Linux filesystems and did not bear any animosity to him prior to this, even though he frequently clashed with other programmers and computer enthusiasts over ReiserFS and Linux and gained a reputation for being egocentric and difficult to work with; the final fate of the code that bears his name has yet to be determined.

    In my opinion, the jury came back with the correct verdict; the saddest part is that Hans' and Nina's children will likely never know what happened to their mother; Hans Reiser maintains his innocence and will likely appeal the verdict, and to date Nina's body has not been found.

    (The San Francisco Chronicle had a reporter liveblogging the trial; Wired also ran a series of articles.)

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