I don’t know if Hans Reiser, creator of the well-regarded, open-source ReiserFS (Reiser File System), is actually guilty of the murder of his estranged wife, Nina Reiser. We can’t actually even be sure that Nina Reiser was murdered. Her body was never found and Reiser’s attorney argued that she may have returned to her native Russia.
Never-the-less, as Wired reported, “with no body, no crime scene, no reliable eyewitness and virtually no physical evidence” Hans Reiser was found guilty of first-degree murder. In California, first-degree murder must be “willful, deliberate, and premeditated.”
I don’t see it. I’ve just gone over the case’s history as recorded in the San Francisco Chronicle and other sites. I could see the jury finding him guilty of manslaughter. I can buy them agreeing on a lesser charge of murder, but first degree? But, finding him guilty of first degree murder, with nothing but circumstantial evidence, and not even very strong circumstantial evidence at that? That surprised me.
My colleague Brian Proffitt, editor of Linux Today, told me, “Having a long history of covering trials as a newspaper reporter, it didn’t surprise me too much. I have seen enough juries to know that sometimes they take the whole “reasonable doubt” concept and apply it to the defendant’s guilt, instead of their innocence. ‘He could have done it,” they think, so they err on the side of ‘caution.'”
What really seems to have convinced the jury of his guilty was Reiser’s own testimony. His attorney, William Du Bois, when pressed, said “I’m sure he negatively impressed the jurors.”
There’s no doubt of that. Vince Dunn, one of the jurors, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, said Reiser’s coldness on the stand and a phone call to his mother in which he basically justified the reasons that he hated his wife were among the reasons that led the seven-man, five-woman jury on Monday to find him guilty of murdering her even though her body has not been found.
So, in the end, it seems that Reiser was found guilty because he came across as arrogant, cold and weird. Du Bois had told The Washington Post before the verdict that he was using a “geek defense.” Du Bois told the Post, “All this weird conduct can be explained by him, but he’s the only one who can do it. People who are commonly known as computer geeks are so into the field.”
Well, if this was a deliberate defense, it certainly back-fired.
That said, Du Bois was right in one regard, Reiser is a hacker’s hacker. When I say hacker, I don’t mean in the common understanding as someone who breaks into computer systems, I mean in the older, true sense of someone who’s deeply into exploring a technology. Some such people are so deeply into a technology that they don’t work and play well with the normal world. I know Reiser, not well, but I know him, and he’s a perfect example. Unfortunately, he’s also a perfect example of many of a hacker’s worst traits.
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.
Again, I don’t know if Hans Reiser committed murder. I have friends who are close friends of his who are convinced that he couldn’t have done it. However, I’ve also known people who I would have swore could never commit a heinous crime only to find out that they had committed such crimes. So, while I respect his friends’ views, I can’t share them.
What I can say is that, based on the evidence shown by the prosecution in this case, there is no way that Reiser should have been found guilty of first-degree murder. Maybe he did, but this case doesn’t even come close to meeting the requirements of finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was found guilty of being cold, self-absorbed, and arrogant. In short, he’s guilty of all the sins of an unpleasant hacker. That, however, is not the same thing as being a murderer.
I hope the truth behind Nina Reiser’s disappearance is discovered. But, based on the evidence presented to date, I don’t think we’re even close to knowing what really happened to her or what role, if any, Hans Reiser played in her fate.