Computer Programmer's Attorneys Use 'Geek Defense'

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

OAKLAND, Calif. -- When Nina Reiser disappeared in September 2006, investigators suspecting foul play looked long and hard at her estranged husband, the computer genius Hans. Eccentric, awkward and notoriously difficult as a human being, Hans Reiser proved quite accommodating when it came to providing clues.

After taking no part in the massive public effort to search for the mother of his two children, he listed the reasons he was happy that Nina was gone in a phone call monitored by police. He discreetly purchased copies of "Masterpieces of Murder" and "Homicide" from a local bookstore. Police discovered his passport in his fanny pack along with $8,000 in cash and a cellphone that could not be tracked electronically because its battery was removed, just like the phone found inside Nina's minivan, which was found abandoned on a side street smelling of rotting groceries; she had been to the store before dropping the kids at Hans's house.

Police also found soaked floorboards in his car and an empty space where the passenger seat should have been.

In the courtroom where Hans Reiser is on trial for murder, all this might appear to indicate guilty knowledge. But his attorneys cast it as evidence of an innocence peculiar to Hans, a computer programmer so immersed in the folds of his own intellect that he had no idea how complicit he was making himself appear.

"Being too intelligent can be a sort of curse," defense counsel William Du Bois said. "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."

And so this week, after a prosecution case that took almost three months, Du Bois launched what Wired magazine dubbed "the Geek Defense." In court, Du Bois has taken pains to portray his client as an irritating nebbish. He has repeatedly asked Alameda County Circuit Court Judge Larry Goodman to order his client to stop distracting him by talking in his ear at the defense table. He called Reiser "an inconsiderate slob" in front of the jury.

"We're leaving the right message," Du Bois said outside court. "He's a very difficult person. It's very difficult to represent a genius."

The effort will be watched and appreciated down the breadth of Silicon Valley, perhaps the only place a computer genius might find a jury of peers.

There, Hans Reiser's actions appear fairly reasonable, at least to people who spend much more time with computer code than with other humans.

"It strikes me that a lot of coders have a somewhat detached view of the world, and it's reasonable to assume that Hans might not even have stopped to think about how things looked," said Rick Moen, a local area network consultant in Menlo Park.

"I remove my cellphone battery periodically, and I've taught many people to do the same," noted John Gilmore, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is challenging the Bush administration in court on wiretaps. "What can you do when the FCC mandates tracking capability to every cellphone? On the lame excuse that once in a while someone calls 911 and can't give the address."

On his LinuxMafia site, Moen maintains a timeline of the case culled from the posts filed from correspondents in the courthouse gallery 35 miles north, live-blogging the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle and Wired's Threat Level blog.

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