Convicted of Murder, Linux Guru Hans Reiser Returns to Court to Fight Civil Suit

Hans Reiser on the stand in 2008 during his 11 days of testimony that ended with a jury convicting him of murdering his wife, Nina. Illustration: Norman Quebedeau/Wired

Four years after being convicted of killing his wife, Linux guru Hans Reiser returns Monday to court, this time to defend himself from a wrongful-death suit brought by his two children.

Reiser, the developer of the ReiserFS filesystem, was convicted by an Alameda County, California jury in 2008 of the first-degree murder of his wife, Nina. Defendant Reiser and his legal team had argued that his wife was not dead, and had abandoned her children to sneak away to Russia, where the couple met in 1998, after he accused her of embezzling from his software company, Namesys. But jurors didn’t buy Reiser’s story, and weeks after his conviction he led the authorities to Nina’s body hidden in the Oakland hills, for a reduced term of 15-to-life instead of 25-to-life.

Now he has a new story — he killed his wife to prevent her from possibly killing their children. And he plans on telling a new jury about it while wearing his Pleasant Valley State Prison jail smocks and acting as his own attorney.

In his own words: Hans Reiser’s latest defense to killing his wife, Nina.

San Francisco lawyers working pro bono brought the suit on behalf of the Reisers’ 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. The suit seeks unspecified damages for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The children’s attorney, Arturo González of Morrison & Foerster, isn’t sure if there is any money to recover for the children.

“We want a judgment. If it turns out that Reiser has assets hidden somewhere, like a bank account in Russia, if that turns out to be the case, we want the children to be entitled to those funds,” he said. “It is conceivable he may come up with some idea that is of some value, then that value should go to the children.”

The murder case began with no body, no crime scene, no reliable eyewitness and virtually no physical evidence. It ended with the husband’s conviction after he took the stand, delivered the “geek defense” and proceeded to slowly incriminate himself over the course of 11 days of testimony.

And now he’s got a new twist to the story, a tale that the Alameda County judge overseeing the case has barred, but it’s one he undoubtedly will tell anyway.

He claims his wife was abusing the kids, that she had Factitious disorder by proxy – often referred to as Munchausen syndrome by proxy – where a caregiver harms or even kills someone they are in charge of in order to gain sympathy and attention. During the 2008 trial, Reiser alluded to that as well, accusing his wife of having the disease when she wanted to get their son surgery for severe hearing loss.

Nina Reiser, at age 31, was last seen alive at Hans Reiser’s house in the Oakland hills on the day of her 2006 murder, when she dropped off the once-happy couple’s two young children to stay with him the Labor Day weekend. The couple were in the middle of a heated divorce.

According to a confession as part of a sentencing deal, he said he first punched her in the mouth, cutting his hand, then strangled her to death.

In the unlawful death case, he now says why: “I defended my children from harm.” He added that, by murdering his wife, “I stopped multiple felonies by doing so.”

In his papers, he accuses the courts, the prison system, county children’s services, his trial attorneys and others of conspiring against him, during his murder trial and now in the civil case.

“There are extensive legal grounds under multiple arguments for defending an innocent child when the state will not, at the cost of a non-innocent party’s life,” Hans Reiser wrote.

Jury selection is set for Monday morning in Alameda County Superior Court. Superior Court Judge Dennis Hayashi has allowed a total of six hours of testimony from both sides.

Reiser’s children are not expected to take the stand. “People who knew the family,” González said, will testify on behalf of the children, who are living in Russia with the victim’s mother.

The lawsuit says the children suffered a “loss of love, support, companionship, comfort, (and) affection.”