Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Hans Reiser Effect

"The defense has suggested that Nina Reiser, who was 31 when she disappeared, could be alive and living in her native Russia." — San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 2008

Once, while telling my mother in a very coolishly cynical way about some injustice I had stumbled on, she turned to me and said, "I worry about raising my kids to be too cynical."

A healthy dose of skepticism is part of my job; it helps me separate the wheat from the chaff. But, OK, maybe it's a slippery slope down Skepticism Mountain into Cynical Valley.

Which brings me to Hans Reiser. Reiser — for those who don't know it (and until the past few months, I was gladly among you) — was the master of the Linux operating system. A king of computer code, if you will. But then his estranged wife, Nina, went missing after last being seen dropping off their two young children with Reiser. Eventually, he was charged with murder.

Throughout his trial — extensively covered by Bay Area newspapers and the national media, including Wired — Reiser maintained his innocence. That's putting it nicely: He proclaimed his innocence, angrily denouncing anyone who thought otherwise. His defense team introduced the thought that Nina Reiser, whose body hadn't been recovered, actually fled to Russia and was lying low, as a way of getting back at Hans with a murder conviction.

A jury convicted Reiser recently. The police never uncovered a body, but the circumstantial evidence was strangely overwhelming: a missing car seat, a cell phone that was turned off or the batteries taken out (presumably so it couldn't be tracked), drops of Nina Reiser's blood and Reiser's own odd behavior.

Yet Hans Reiser was the only person who really knew what happened to Nina, and he denied that he killed his wife. And he wouldn't lie in court, would he? Despite publicly taking the oath of the Loyal Order of Cynics, something in me wanted to believe Reiser. I've watched enough TV crime dramas — anything's possible, right? Maybe. Just maybe. Legally, they'd call that "reasonable doubt."

It may have been doubt. But it wasn't reasonable. Reiser, in an effort to convert his first-degree murder conviction into a second-degree murder sentence, led police to a shallow grave a couple of days ago that held the remains of Nina Reiser. She had been strangled.

Sometimes I want to believe the best about people, even if all evidence is to the contrary. In the end, I feel manipulated and used. When I read that Reiser had indeed killed his wife and was only trying to get a better deal for himself — not telling the truth to, at least, free his conscience or close what could have been a painfully open-ended story for his children — I, frankly, was pissed off. I wanted to drive over to the jail and beat him senseless.

But I can thank people like Hans Reiser, the Bushes George and Bill Clinton: I've come to realize that despite lies flowing from the courtroom as well as the Oval Office — institutions we're taught since childhood to trust — I'm not a cynic. I trust people too much for that.

At my worst, I'm not even a skeptic, but I need to be more skeptical. That, I think, would strike a balance that would even make my mother happy.

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