Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

The Trial

The Courthouse was full
The Courthouse was full
The trial, which the renowned acerbic journalist and critic H.L. Mencken called "the greatest story since the Resurrection," took place in the county seat, Flemington, New Jersey. It was indeed a circus, with hundreds of reporters and spectators swelling the small town to several times its population.

The prosecution was led by the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, David T. Wilentz, thirty-eight years old.Wilentz and his prosecution team completely outmatched Hauptmann's lawyers. Wilentz, who was trying his first criminal case as attorney general, was a dapper, cigar-smoking, confident little man who built a convincing circumstantial case. He is almost always photographed with a broad grin, a cigar, sometimes with a white fedora with a brim turned down in the manner of a New York dandy or the gangster Al Capone. Despite his smiling charm, his eleven hours of cross-examination of Hauptmann was quite savage, and his summation emotional, dramatic, and impressive.

The New York Journal offered to provide Hauptmann with a well-known Brooklyn defense attorney, Edward J. Reilly. He was assisted by a local Flemington attorney, well respected but inexperienced in criminal defense, C. Lloyd Fisher.

Attorney General of New Jersey, David T. Wilentz
It is tempting to attribute much of the responsibility for Hauptmann's conviction to Reilly. Even those works that present the case for Hauptmann's guilt describe Reilly and his courtroom performance in unflattering terms. He was florid, hulking, bombastic —he wore a swallow-tail coat and striped trousers —and something of a boozer. The lunch breaks during the trial often presented Reilly with opportunities to consume a number of drinks. The difference between his morning performances in court, and the afternoons, where he was listless, were noted. While a resident of Flemington during the six-week trial, he had an endless stream of "stenographers," all of them uniformly gorgeous, who visited his quarters each evening.

Reilly and Mrs. Hauptmann
Reilly and Mrs. Hauptmann
There is little doubt that he invented and hired witnesses, fabricated statements to the press, and deliberately misled the jury. His incompetence even dismayed Hauptmann, who, during the long trial, had only one fifteen-minute private conference with his principal attorney. He alienated his own client, his co-counsels, the jury, and the spectators by his senseless bullying of prosecution witnesses. He missed a crucial opportunity to raise reasonable doubt when, to the complete mystification of his colleague, Lloyd Fisher, he conceded that the corpse of the child discovered by William Allen was indeed Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. Much of his cross-examination was an attack on the competence of the police officers and their investigation, a tactic that was more effective sixty years later when used by Johnnie Cochran in his defense of O.J. Simpson.

Although paid $25,000 by the New York Journal for his work, he later sent Mrs. Hauptmann a bill for an additional $25,000, attempting to get his cut of the action from her fund-raising efforts to support her husband's appeals.

Two weeks after the verdict, drunkenly raving, he was taken away to a Brooklyn hospital in a straightjacket. A few weeks after that, he was back in action, but disinclined to sue the Hauptmanns for additional legal fees.

The prosecution's case was built on several powerful circumstantial elements. First, $14,600 of the ransom bills was found hidden in Hauptmann's garage. The defense counter to this was that Hauptmann had indeed hidden this money, but that he had found it in a shoebox left to him by a business partner, Isador Fisch, who had departed for Germany in December, 1933, leaving the box in Hauptmann's care. Since Fisch owed him money, Hauptmann felt free to spend some of the bills. Fisch died in Liepzig in March, 1934.

Second, the connection of the beam from Hauptmann's attic to the kidnap ladder was carefully laid out by Koehler and the prosecutors. The defense argued that the ladder had gone through many hands since its discovery, and argued that not only was the beam's placement in the ladder upright questionable, but that Officer Bornmann could have planted the evidence. For a time, they argued for its inadmissibility, but Trenchard ruled for the prosecution.

Third, the prosecution brought an array of handwriting experts who testified that the ransom notes were written by Hauptmann, when the writing samples he provided were compared and analyzed. Reilly boasted that he would have as many handwriting experts counter this testimony, but, in fact, he presented only two weak "experts," several others that he had contracted refusing to testify for the defense.

In addition to these important issues, the prosecution brought a number of witnesses who reported seeing Hauptmann, his car with the ladder, near the Lindbergh estate prior to March 1, the night of the kidnapping.

Lindberg on the stand, testifying
Lindberg on the stand, testifying
Most telling was the positive identification of Hauptmann as "Cemetery John" by Condon, and the testimony of Lindbergh, who said that the voice he had heard on April 2, the night of the delivery of the ransom, was Hauptmann's. Reilly attempted to discredit Lindbergh by asking if he was armed during his testimony. Lindbergh, who had been carrying a pistol while a spectator at the trial, and having been forewarned, honestly replied that he was not.

As mentioned, Reilly allowed the identification of the corpse in the woods to stand as that of the Lindbergh baby, even though the autopsy was haphazard and confusion reigned over certain identifying marks, such as the baby's age and height.

The principal defense witness was Hauptmann, who was attacked by Wilentz in a very long cross-examination, and who presented himself as defiant. In a high, whining voice, he was unable to satisfactorily explain Isador Fisch, the handwriting similarities, and his whereabouts on March 1 and April 2.

 

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