Empathy for Hans Reiser
I was struck, back when Hans Reiser was arrested, by how much of his behaviour mimicked what my own would have been, in the same circumstances, especially if I was innocent. For those not paying attention, Hans Reiser is a famous Linux programmer, accused of murdering his wife, Nina, in September, 2006.
From his reputation, Reiser is a brilliant man, working on a brilliant - or possibly daft - set of ideas in direct competition with a company that had spent billions - and written them off - on the same task. A man so obsessed by those ideas, that it financially ruined him, his wife left him for his best friend, who is now missing or dead, his kids taken from him in part because he's a murder suspect, who just spent spent 16 pre-trial months in jail because he had no money to raise bail, his company destroyed by this, and few, if any, friends left, today is facing The System.
He's on trial, today - almost alone. It's looking like he's going to have to spend another year in the process... and what a tragedy - what a movie this must seem like to him, sometimes! How a normal weekend turned into a nightmare...
How could an innocent man bear such a load? Or a guilty one?
The trial - after over a year of delay - has been going on for months now. It's been fascinating. The best public records of what's going on have been in Henry K. Lee's liveblog
, and the analysis of The Out-Lawyer’s Blog
. Wired's coverage, especially the sketches
, is also excellent. I have to say that the coverage, overall, in the popular press, has been pretty comprehensive.
The evidence presented by 47+ prosecution witnesses was unable to prove anything more violent in Reiser than a taste for video games and a black belt in Judo. Angry, yes. Often an a**, yes. Violent, no.
When his arrest came in October, and the reasons for it were announced, I was struck by how flimsy the evidence seemed, and also by how different a computer geek must seem in the face of normal lawgivers, and a normal jury. I have steered well clear of lawyers and doctors for a long time for similar reasons.
Everything I write below is predicated on the idea that Reiser is innocent. (please note, that my own jury is out, and perhaps I'll write about where I don't emphasise with him, later - but Hans has taken the stand and performed well, even managing to explain away two of my most nagging doubts, one kind of weirdly, but... people are weird). I am writing this because although the case has sparked empathy in me, a geek, I doubt it is having the same effect on the jury, and several aspects of an uber-geek's mindset are hard to understand, so here goes.
To take on the principal bits of evidence from my perspective.
*) A drop of blood of hers was found on a pillar in the house where Hans lived.
I owned a house for 5 years. I can vividly remember several of the places I bled in it (I banged into several pillars, and slashed my head open once on a door!), and no doubt there were several dozen other places where I dragged a burst foot corn or otherwise bled into the place.
There was definitely the blood of several gfs (those that stayed more than a month, anyway), and a few kids, that stopped by with various cuts and scrapes, somewhere, in my house.
I'd hate for that to be used as evidence against me. I sure hope all those people are alive and well today... (note to any ongoing investigations: I've been out of the country for most of year! Everyone I knew then with one exception
is alive and kickin, so far as I know!)
*) A streak of her blood was found on a sleeping bag.
Um, Occam's razor. She slept in that sleeping bag at that time of the month. Why this counted as evidence I don't know.
(No dating could be done on either of the bloodstains. 3 other bloodstains were also found, but discarded as evidence by the prosecution)
This piece of "evidence" is also odd in that if the sleeping bag was used to transport the body and Reiser washed or got rid of everything else, why the heck did he not wash the darn sleeping bag?
*) He refused to let the cops search the house without a warrant. Last I looked, refusing this was covered by the American constitution. And with good reason - when they finally got a warrant, the cops trashed his house over the course of three days, even carting the back door away as evidence.
Imagine how'd you feel about this if you were innocent, sitting in your wrecked home after it had been torn apart, feeling the breeze from the back...
*) He bought two books on murder investigations after he concluded he was the prime suspect.
I would have done the same thing. (I am, admittedly, a nerd). Well, I might have gone to the public library, and opened less popular tomes. I've polled more normal people on this question, and most responded that they'd call a lawyer first, read a book second or third. Frankly, calling a lawyer never occurred to me, my call would have been first phone call from jail after the cold weird reality set in.
*) He practiced evasive techniques on the police.
Well, I might not have done this, but if they annoyed me enough - or I was still in an unreality mode where "Real Life" was getting so weird, so fast, I might have. Problem is, for decades, I have always tried to avoid dropping into patterns. When the opportunity arises I generally take a different path to a destination. This is not exactly uninfluenced by an unending string of Tom Clancy novels and spy novels I read in the 80s, where the kidnappers always scope out the target's patterns, but it is mostly my embrace of essential randomness. I took a different turn yesterday, for example, and found some nice flowers to smell, then doubled back as it looked like the road was ending.
So my "normal" behavior is kind of random. I don't know how to "look normal" or behave predictably. I've also been known to break out into a run for no reason other than excess energy.
*) Reiser wasn't particularly cop-friendly.
Well, neither am I. Cops divide the world into two kinds of people - felons, and criminals that haven't been caught yet. In today's America, nearly everyone violates one law or another daily. If the RIAA could convict and extract penalties from every college student with a mp3 collection, they'd be trillionaires.
This past week, I was riding my bike on the sidewalk a lot, which I'm told is illegal in Australia. I have no idea what the penalties are for this, I do it because having cars pass me on my right freaks me out, I feel much safer on the sidewalk - and it's a silly law - only once in 20+km of riding this week did I share the sidewalk with a pedestrian. If I'm busted for it I hope my accent gets me off.
(I would like America - and the world - a lot better if there was an upper limit on laws per capita, but no such luck) I don't want to trivialize murder by saying all this, but I am pointing out that even the most innocent citizen, even a few saints, break the law all the time, and have no reason to particularly like cops.
*) His car seat was missing and the floor was sopping wet. I found these last two pieces of evidence very damning originally - I still do. For the latter, I'd like very much for someone to publish the weather report for the time period and locations Reiser was ostensibly around (I'll have to see if I can pull up that date - if it rained...). For the former, well, the explanation raised in court today was pretty compelling, if he can back it up - he was sleeping in the car.
*) He went camping in the wilderness.
The defense alleges that's probably where the body went. It's a big wilderness and a compelling explanation.
Thing is, I'd explained Reiser's situation to multiple people on this trip, and asked what they'd do if all the pressures in the world were bearing down on you in this way - that suddenly you were caught in a whirlwind of law, lawyers, cpa, and paperwork - and 3 said, without further prompting - that they'd go camping to sort it all out.
This was precisely my response. After about a week of dealing with this increasingly paranoid crap, I would have gone camping. Though it would have been smart to go with a group. I wouldn't want a group - I'm a lone camper type - but it would have been smart.
*) When he was picked up by the cops he didn't have a battery in his cell phone. (the cell phone in Nina's car had also had her cell phone battery removed) (note, I have to check this allegation, I thought I read it this morning)
It is a really odd, geeky coincidence that points to someone being concerned about these sort of devices being used by the state, that the battery be removed. On the other hand, maybe removing the battery was common in their family. I don't know. Odder traits exist. I know people that buy rechargable batteries, and then leave them charging for days.
I do find it weird, very weird, and sad, that leaving the battery out of your cell phone can be considered evidence of a crime. Will, one day, not charging your cell phone - or forgetting to carry it - BE a crime??
From a privacy standpoint, the now well known exploits of the FBI, KGB, etc, in tapping cell phones, turning them on remotely, and using cell GPS to track people, really, really bother me. Over the past couple years numerous people I respect have made reference to cell phones being "government tracking devices". One criticised mine so much that I decided to stop carrying one entirely and see how I managed life without a ringtone.
I like it. A lot. I now carry a personal recorder instead, and about 1/3 of my writing gets done on that, when other people would be jabbering away about nothing. I'm saving 50 bucks a month, too. It does make my Millenial friends and mom crazy to not be able to reach me in this way, but I sure hope one day I'm not REQUIRED to carry a government tracking device.
The flaw of the Orwellian telescreen was that it was ominous, ever-present, and threatening. Cellphones are handheld and portable... and CUTE - everybody has one. One up on Orwell, for sure.
Still, I probably wouldn't have disconnected my battery in everyday use, as Reiser aparently did...
*) He was carrying a passport and cash
One thing I'm hoping for in this trial is to get a better picture of modern Russia, without having to go there myself. In Nicaragua, I always carried a passport, and cash - met a few AK-47 carrying traffic cops in my time there, too. Americans are far too oblivious to other ways of life, I can imagine that the paranoia level in places where Reiser spent half his time is much higher, on average. Take the treatment of Gazprom
, for example. Your paranoia level also tends to be high if you are competing directly with Microsoft, too...
Reiser claims to have carried his passport since 1996 in the same place I've kept mine since I left the US. He claims to have been carrying the money because he felt (rightly) that with cops seizing all his assets they could get, that he'd have no money to live, or make payroll.
*) He's hard to understand
I have just now figured out that when a reporter writes "the defendant rambles on the stand", "rambles" is a code word for "I didn't understand the long paragraph the defendant said, so I'll make it sound like he's a nutcase, rather than someone trying (badly) to explain something outside my intellectual experience".
I ramble. Always have. I have a (now) funny story to tell about trying to describe USENET to a shrink back in the early 90s, but I'm not going to tell it here.
*) The defense has little evidence besides all that, and has spent months establishing that Reiser's relations were contentious with all sorts of people, and that he did not accept authority.
I'm contentious with all sorts of people, although I do make a better effort to get along than Reiser ever did on the kernel mailing list. In particular, I found about half his interactions with people like the doctor that preferred surgery to allergy medication - compellingly, and possibly, right. I've questioned the motivations of quite a few "professionals" in my time... been right a rather high percentage of that, too.
I'm contentious, but not violent. The closest thing to a violent story told about Reiser was his response to being sent 5000 spam mails by someone back in 1985, which was kind of moderate, actually. He's not a drunk, or a wife beater, or an S&M freak, or anything like that... and this makes me worry about myself, as I'm none of these things either yet I have several violent fantasies: 1 - about inviting all the known spammers on a free cruise, and then blowing up the ship, and shooting the survivors in the water. 2 - having system crackers drawn, hung and quartered - and 3 - putting people like ken lay out in the public stocks....
I've worked with the various authorities on implementing item 2... somewhat unwillingly, as they wanted way more information than I wanted to supply.
As for authority, I have a lot more respect for it than Reiser did, but it took a couple encounters with hard reality in the early 90s to install it in me. I still plan to keep biking on sidewalks, however.
*) He didn't ask for bail.
Weirdly, some people think of this as guilt. I'd have asked the judge to set the bail amount, just to kind of financially add up the weight of the charges... but
Broke, accused of murder, low on friends, having had a hell of a time, nowhere to go, what would you do? I don't know what I would do. Perhaps I'd regard time spent in jail with a sense of relief - thinking it would only be weeks before this silly matter was straightened out - before my ex-wife was found off with a new lover somewhere - naively thinking that finally I'd be able to get some serious writing done without outside distractions....
or at least I did before this case came up.
*) He erased/hid a hard disk
I keep a lot of data encrypted and take refuge in the 5th amendment against ever revealing the password. Actually, I regard encryption as being the only valid use of the 2nd amendment left. And what little is left of the 4th amendment
Given the kind of sometimes sensitive work I do (and he did) - I sleep better at night knowing that nobody but me can access certain data. Nobody. Ever.
It is also highly probable there was some illicit software or images (or gasp! mp3s!) there that could have been used against him. God help him if there was a single image of what could have been construed as child pornography there, for example. I worry about that - I'd think about wiping my hard disk were I a suspect in a crime, whether or not I'd committed it - as I tend to use google without safesearch turned on - who knows what's in my cache?
Do this: (And don't say I didn't warn you first) - turn off safe search, go to google images, and search for "nina". On the same page you'll also find a picture of a 14 year old, somewhat provocatively dressed.
Even with safesearch turned on, a few unsafe things slip through.
In Reiser's case - he was doing work for the DoD, among others, as well as top secret work on his own product - I'd have hidden that away somewhere safe - period. Probably on the net, I can think of a dozen safe ways to do that, but definitely I'd definitely yank the drive if low on time or if the files were big, and I wanted to be able to stay in business. The tale of Steve Jackson games
is well remembered in engineering folklore.
The lawyer analyzing the case, above, says that Reiser could not have securely erased the files involved in his (theoretical) search for how to hide the body - he's wrong in that, there are plenty of ways to do that, I think Reiser hid something important to his business, his sole remaining dream... that there was a lot more to reiserfs4 than ever hit the public eye, and as I said, at the same time, there is the possibility of so much otherwise potentially incriminating stuff getting stored on a hard drive these days that the sanest response for any citizen would be to encrypt it all...
(My apologies to those that just did the google search with safesearch turned off. You can clean out your cache in firefox, but if you want to be SURE the data is gone, try searching for secure delete
on the internet.)
*) His portrait of Nina is of a manipulator...
I've met several women just like how he portrays Nina. I was
willing to accept what the witnesses said about her positively, before, then I read this
: I don’t know Hans nor do I know Nina, but I am from Soviet Union myself, and when I read his description of Nina, her image became so vivid, I know exactly what he is saying. I believe him! I don't think that he killed her. Even before I read his testimony, I did think that she is absolutely capable of such a fraud. And again I do agree with him, many Russians think Americans are naive, if not to say stupid. I also agree that legal system here is biased against men. They did steal his kids. How would you feel? Why a man of such intelligence as he is, man who was able to invent Linux filing system, isn’t able to create more smooth lies? I think because he is saying the truth.
So where does the trial go now? Well, while Reiser rots, the judge takes a vacation for a week - this is after well over year spent in jail for Reiser, with no additional evidence found against him - that's a "speedy trial" in the US for an famous indigent programmer. I hope nobody I know ever has to go through this - guilty, or innocent.
Things that bother me ongoing... what if this was a simple disappearance, utterly random? I note that Oakland ranks high in the national murder and drug crime rates... and if proven innocent, how will Reiser pull his life back together? OJ simpson has never managed to do so... and had much more substantial evidence against him, in my humble opinion.
And then, of course, there's the movie that is sure to come of this. One potential plotline: KGB makes shadowy deal with big corporation. Bad guy makes deal with ex-wife to discredit a John Galt type that refuses to sell out... deal goes bad... she flees for her life... he goes to jail but stands firm...
can there be a happy ending to this story? Or a true and just one?
Labels: hans reiser, law