Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

The Second Trial

The case would have to be tried a second time and partisans on both sides spent the interim analyzing the inconclusive trial for their errors. Those on the prosecution team noted that several potential jurors had been excused because they said they would have trouble believing someone who had been a Communist and Stryker's cross-examination made this particular former Communist seem especially untrustworthy, certainly immoral, and, quite possibly, mentally unstable as well.

Whittaker devoted the months between trials to polishing up his image. He informed the public that he was not just an "ex"-Communist. He was a reformed Communist. He ostentatiously embraced anti-Communism with the same fervor he had brought to Communism itself.

Hiss fired Lloyd Stryker. The reserved defendant had never cared for Stryker's unabashedly emotional style and now wanted someone more restrained to present his case to a new jury. His new choice was lawyer Claude B. Cross, a corporate attorney known for his care with the mundane details of evidence. The second trial was also missing Judge Kaufman. Instead, it was held before 73-year-old Judge Henry W. Goddard. However, Tom Murphy was back as the prosecutor.

Only four months passed between the deadlock of Hiss's first trial and the beginning in November of his second. They were important months historically for during them the Cold War chilled past the freezing point. President Truman told the country that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb and Americans shuddered at the knowledge that their enemy had this weapon of horror. Mao Tse-tung's Red Army chased Chiang Kai-shek's supporters out of China. Chiang's forces fled to Taiwan while the world's most populous nation went Communist. The American populace was increasingly anxious and many wanted stronger action against domestic Communists. Thus, the general atmosphere was even more highly charged at Hiss's second trial than it had been at the first.

Tom Murphy was a man who could learn from his mistakes. Although Chambers might have been somewhat more acceptable to the public than previously, Murphy did not depict Chambers's truthfulness as the primary issue. Rather, the Woodstock typewriter, together with the similarity of the Hiss specimens and the Baltimore papers, was the major proof upon which he staked the government's claim. They constituted hard, physical evidence that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged.

As could be expected, much of the second trial was a re-run of the first. Whittaker and Esther Chambers, Alger and Priscilla Hiss all testified. Julian Wadleigh testified. Several experts appeared again to discuss the technical aspects of the case. Character witnesses told of Alger Hiss's many sterling qualities (although the most famous of the last trial, Justice Frankfurter, didn't appear).

An important prosecution witness appeared at this trial that had not been allowed at the first trial: Hede Massing. She told the jury that she had met the defendant at the home of another spy, Noel Field. She recalled a conversation of friendly competition between herself and Alger for their mutual host:

"I said to Mr. Hiss, 'I understand that you are trying to get Noel Field away from my organization into yours,' and he said, 'So you are this famous girl that is trying to get Noel Field away from me,' and I said, 'Yes.' And he said, as far as I remember, 'Well, we will see who is going to win,' at which point I said, 'Well, Mr. Hiss I did not say 'Mr. Hiss 'Well, you realize that you are competing with a woman,' at which either he or I said, the gist of the sentence was, 'Whoever is going to win we are working for the same boss.'"

Thus, the second jury heard an independent witness corroborate Whittaker Chambers's assertion that Hiss had been in the Communist underground.

This jury also got to hear a defense witness whose testimony had been disallowed at the first trial. That witness was psychiatrist Carl Binger who testified that he had made a close study of Chambers's courtroom demeanor, his known actions, and his writings. On that basis, Dr. Binger said he believed Chambers was a "psychopathic personality, which is a disorder of character, of which the outstanding features are behavior of what we call an amoral or an asocial and delinquent nature." The doctor went on to explain that symptoms of psychopathic personality include "chronic, persistent and repetitive lying; they include stealing, acts of deception and misrepresentation, vagabondage, and a tendency to make false accusations." Dr. Binger had little trouble associating aspects of Chambers's admitted misbehaviors with those symptomatic of psychopathic personality disorder and the jury could easily infer that this trial was the result of "a tendency to make false accusations." A second psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Murray, testified in support of Dr. Binger's conclusions.

Summing up for the defense, Cross told the jury that the handwritten memos had been pilfered from Hiss's office by Julian Wadleigh or another, unknown confederate of Chambers. He granted that sensitive documents had been copied on Hiss's Woodstock but said, "it is not the question of what typewriter was used but who the typist was." Hiss had not had the Woodstock when it was used for this nefarious purpose; the Catletts had. Somehow Chambers or someone else had gotten into the Catlett home to type the papers.

Murphy in his summation ridiculed Hiss's failure to remember "George Crosley" before HUAC and derided character testimony saying, "What kind of reputation [does] a good spy have? Of course it must be good. The fox barks not when he goes to steal the lamb." He ended by reviewing the typewritten and typewriter evidence, calling it "immutable" proof of Hiss's guilt.

The second trial of Alger Hiss ended with his conviction on both counts of perjury. As is customary, the judge asked the defendant if he had anything to say before the court passed sentence. Alger did. He rose and said, "I would like to thank your Honor for this opportunity again to deny the charges that have been made against me. I want only to add that I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed. Thank you."

Judge Goddard sentenced Hiss to five years in prison on each count with the sentences running concurrently.

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