HAYWARD (CBS SF) — More than four years after he was convicted of murdering his wife, computer engineer Hans Reiser returned to court Monday to defend himself in a wrongful death lawsuit that was filed by his two children.
Jury selection in the case was nearly completed Monday and opening statements are expected to be presented mid-morning Tuesday. Reiser, who is serving a term of 15 years to life, is acting as his own lawyer and will present his own opening statement.
Reiser, now 48, was prosecuted for the death of 31-year-old Nina Reiser, who disappeared on Sept. 3, 2006, after dropping off the couple’s two children at the house at 6979 Exeter Drive in the Oakland hills that Hans Reiser shared with his mother.
Nina Reiser, who was born in Russia and was trained as a physician there, married Hans, who is a native of Oakland, in 1999 but filed for divorce in 2004 and was granted legal custody of their children. However, the divorce hadn’t been finalized at the time that she disappeared and Hans Reiser was allowed to have the children on alternate weekends.
Hans Reiser was convicted of first-degree murder on April 28, 2008, at the end of a six-month trial that received extensive news media coverage, both locally and nationally.
In an unusual deal, prosecutor Paul Hora and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman agreed four months later to allow Reiser to plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in exchange for his cooperation in leading authorities to the site near his home where he buried Nina.
In 11 days of testimony in his trial, Reiser denied that he had anything to do with Nina’s disappearance.
But in a tape-recorded statement to authorities on Aug. 21, 2008, Reiser said he killed Nina on Sept. 3, 2006, by hitting her in the face and strangling her with a judo hold while their children played computer games one floor below.
Reiser said that at the end of a two-hour-long discussion he became “enraged” at Nina after they talked about his allegation that she was inventing illnesses in the children as a way of getting back at him.
The wrongful death suit, which was filed on Aug. 28, 2008, says that Rory Reiser, now 12, and Niorline Reiser, now 11, “have suffered a tremendous loss, including the loss of love, support and companionship, comfort, affection and society of Nina.”
The suit says that Hans Reiser’s conduct “negligently inflicted serious emotional distress on Rory and Niorline Reiser” because both were in Hans’ house when he murdered Nina, “which has resulted in severe emotional distress and psychological trauma.”
The suit seeks unspecified general and special damages as well as punitive and exemplary damages.
Throughout Reiser’s criminal trial, William DuBois, his defense lawyer, said Reiser had very few assets because he has spent most of his money on his divorce case and his murder case.
Attorney Arturo Gonzalez of the San Francisco firm Morrison Foerster, who is representing Rory and Niorline pro bono, said the purpose of the lawsuit to protect their interests because it’s not clear how many assets Reiser has.
Gonzalez said Reiser’s computer file business, Namesys Inc., and various patents might be worth a fair amount of money and Reiser might be able to invent a valuable product while he’s in prison.
Rory and Niorline have been living with Nina’s mother, Irina Sharanova, in St. Petersburg, Russia, since December 2006.
In handwritten court filings, Hans Reiser complained that his children “have been kidnapped to Russia” and proposed that the children, acting as special masters, should decide the wrongful death case instead of a jury.
Reiser also said he has been treated poorly while he’s been in prison and has been denied access to a computer and a typewriter.
He said the seizure of his typewriter by prison staff has “damaged both my litigation and my ability to send my physics research work out for publication.”
Reiser said he thinks the wrongful death case will take 300 days but a spokeswoman for Gonzalez said it’s predicted that the case will only take about a week.
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