The Lindbergh Kidnapping & Murder Case


He was America's hero, the famous Charles Lindbergh, aviator, the first human to fly across the Atlantic all by himself in 1927.  So, when his 20-month-old son, on the night of March 1, 1932, was kidnapped and found murdered, the pressure to find and convict the person who did the terrible deed was tremendous.  Whenever the public pressure increases to the boiling point, the potential for error goes up as well.   We will never know if Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was arrested and convicted, was really involved.  A strong case can be made for his innocence.


Key factors in his arrest and conviction now, in historic retrospect, leave us with considerable doubt.  If the jury had been reasonable, instead of inflamed, then most likely they would have felt that there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.  As it was, after 29 days of trial, the jury quickly returned with a guilty verdict in only 12 hours---clearly, they did not thoughtfully review all of the evidence. 


The person arrested was involved at least indirectly because he was caught with some of the ransom money.  All the bills used to pay the ransom had their serial numbers recorded.  Hauptmann contended that a friend had left the money with him to hold.  Although that might seem hard to believe, it may well have been true, as the person who left the money with him was a known money launderer.  The real culprits probably sold the money to the launderer, a man called Fisch.  But the jury wanted to find someone guilty and the only person they arrested was Hauptmann… Hauptmann was going to be convicted.   The fact that his defense lawyer was a drunk and only conferred with him for a total of 40 minutes didn't help  things; however, he most likely  would have been convicted even if he had had excellent counsel.  The nation's hero had lost his beloved child and, therefore, someone had to pay.


They also had a handwritten ransom note.  The prosecution experts said it was Hauptmann's writing.  The defense experts said it wasn't.  The prosecution experts outnumbered the defense experts.  However, even if they had not, the jury wasn't really interested in reasonable doubt.  They were a  "hanging jury" and the only way they would have come back with an innocent verdict would have been for the real culprits to have been caught.   Since Hauptmann was the only one on trial, he was the one that they were going to convict.  The fact that modern handwriting analysis has established that it wasn't his handwriting helps us to appreciate his innocence and emphasizes how easy it is to convict an innocent man when the public is outraged by a particular crime.


The ladder used by the kidnappers was also a crucial piece of evidence.  It was a huge ladder, as it had to reach up to a window high up on the second floor of the home where the baby's room was.  And it was constructed to just reach that window.  How did they know that it needed to be that long?  Clearly it was the type of ladder that would have taken two men to use.  Yet, we had only one suspect?  Also, how did that suspect know the baby was in that room?  How did they know which second-story window had a broken latch---it was the only window in the whole large house with a broken latch!  Why didn't the family terrier ever bark?  He was in the house and was known to bark loudly at strangers.  Obviously it was very likely that someone was involved from within the home.  Lots of unanswered questions.  But the jury was not interested in examining alternative explanations or looking for someone else when they had a person to blame it on.


And the attorney general did a good job of playing upon those feelings that the jury held as can be seen in his summation, which stated:


"Now, men and women, as I told you before, there are some cases in which a recommendation of mercy might do, but not this one, not this one.  Either this man is the filthiest and vilest snake that ever crept through the grass, or he is entitled to an acquittal.  And if you believe as we do, you have got to convict him.  If you bring a recommendation of mercy, a wish-washy decision, yes, it is your province, I will not say a word about it.  I will not say another word, once I sit down here in this case, so far as this jury and this verdict I concerned.  But it seems to me that you have and you will have the courage if you are convince, as all of us are---the federal authorities, the Bronx people who were here, the New Jersey State Police who were here, the lawyers who were here, Colonel Lindbergh who was here, everybody who has testified---if you believe with us, you have got to find him guilty of murder in the first degree."


Considering that every day between 75,000 and 100,000 people gathered in the town to be part of the trial, the jury was not about to disappoint anyone.


Witnesses lied to help make sure that he was found guilty---no one wanted to take the blame if Hauptmann got off, so the pressure was on to make sure the case was tight.  People who should have been thoroughly interviewed, including Lindbergh himself, never were.  This same type of pressure exerts itself in cases today---human temperament has not changed in the past 70 years.  Today's juries want simple answers to complex questions just as they did back them.  Witnesses want to help convict someone in cases such as this one.  They always have and always will if we do not take steps to improve the way the jury system functions.


Arguing his innocence to the end, and most likely he was innocent, Hauptmann was electrocuted on April 3, 1936.  


For me the most painful part of the story is that the guilty persons went free!  This is always the terrible price society pays when our criminal justice system fails us.  This is why we must do everything we can to ensure that the guilty, not the innocent, are convicted.