Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Case and the Role of the Jury

Over the past number of years I have read two books on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping case. The first was a 1989 book which was part of the Notable Trials Library series. It had excerpts from the trial transcript, along with a summary of the case written in 1937 by Sidney B. Whipple. Whipple clearly believed the defendant, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, was guilty and this bias permeates the entire book.

The other book is called "The Airman and the Carpenter", by Lubovic Kennedy. The subtitle, "the Framing of Richard Hauptmann", indicates the bias of this author towards innocence.

I have long intended to reread both and attempt to make my own determination of guilt or innocence. I finally attempted this recently, but the biases of both books were so strong that it became obvious that no objective analysis of the evidence could be made.

I will have to be content with making a few observations. The Lindbergh baby was kidnapped from his home on March 1, 1932. It created a media frenzy, which lasted for years. My dad says that Charles Lindbergh at that time was the most famous person on earth. More Americans knew who he was than knew who their President was.

On April 2nd, $50,000 in ransom money was handed over to somebody in a Bronx cemetery. On May 12th the baby's body was discovered. Two years then went by with no breaks in the case. Finally, in September of 1934, one of the ransom bills was discovered and on September 19th, 1934, Hauptmann was arrested. His house was searched, and much of the ransom money was found in his garage.

So, a period of two and a half years had passed in which the case was on the front pages, and the public clamor for a resolution was putting intense pressure on the authorities. Once they had a suspect in custody, they came to believe in his guilt and looked for any evidence they could find to convict him. Kennedy writes at great length about how law enforcement officers will, in this situation, look for anything to corroborate their pre-formed theory, and discard any evidence indicating innocence. They do this not because they want to convict an innocent man, but because they honestly believe the suspect to be guilty.

And this is what happened with Hauptmann. The original case filed against Hauptmann was an extortion charge in New York. However, the authorities wanted to use Hauptmann to clear the kidnapping and murder case, so they came up with "eyewitness accounts" supposedly placing Hauptmann in New Jersey, where the Lindbergh house was, on the date of the kidnapping, and they filed charges against him in New Jersey and extradited him to that state. Kennedy points out how notoriously unreliable such eyewitness accounts are, and this would be especially true more than two years after the fact.

The authorities further came up with the outlandish theory that Hauptmann had constructed a ladder to get to the second-floor bedroom where the baby was sleeping, using in this construction a piece of wood sawed off from wood in his attic! It is absurd to think anybody would saw up his attic to make a ladder, yet this was the theory. The prosecution came up with a so-called wood expert who claimed to be able to match up the ladder wood to the wood in the attic. This sort of "expert" is today known to be responsible for many convictions of innocent people, and the name of "junk science" has been given to this sort of pseudo scientific testimony. (The book "Actual Innocence", by Barry Scheck and others, documents cases of wrongful convictions based on junk science testimony.)

As I write and think about this, it becomes more and more obvious that the proper role of the jury here would have been to bring back a conviction of guilty on the extortion charge, Hauptmann having been found with all this ransom money and not having a credible explanation for how it came into his possession. However, there is no strong evidence he had any part in the kidnapping and death of the baby, and it should have been "not guilty" on that part of the case. All the efforts to break Hauptmann down, including what today we would call "torture", yielded no results, and he maintained his innocence to the end and never named any of his accomplices (which of course did not exist if he was in fact innocent). The kidnapper had knowledge of the house's layout and the habits of the staff which only someone with inside knowledge of the Lindbergh family could have had. In retrospect this was an unfortunate rush to judgment and a miscarriage of justice likely did occur.

I have to think of the relevance here of a book I read recently called "We the Jury", by Godfrey D. Lehman. The author discusses important trials throughout history in which the role of the jury was important in preserving our basic freedoms. Lehman argues that in many instances in which a result has been attributed to the brilliance of the lawyers, credit should rather go to the 12 members of the jury who had the guts to vote their consciences.

Lehman discusses the seminal case from 1670 England, known as "Bushel's case". Bushel was a juror in the case against William Penn for unlawful assembly, a charge brought under an English law restricting certain religious practices. The jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict, infuriating the Judge who fined them and sent them back to reconsider. Bushel refused to pay the fine, and the Judge's response to him was that "you shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire, and tobacco. You shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, by the help of God, or you shall starve for it."

Sitting in jail for not paying the fine and for bringing in a verdict the Judge didn't like, Bushell contested his punishment, and in his case against the Judge he established the principle that a jury could not be coerced into giving a particular verdict. We take the independence of juries for granted today, but it was not always so. Thank you, Edward Bushel!

Anyway, the public clamor being what it was, there was no way the Lindbergh jurors could have summoned up the courage to bring in a "not guilty" verdict. Despite serious doubts on the part of the New Jersey governor about Hoffman's guilt, the governor had the power under New Jersey law only to grant a 30-day reprieve, and Hauptmann was executed on April 3, 1936, maintaining his innocence to the very end.

No comments: