The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case: A Critical Analysis of the Trial of Bruno Richard Hauptman

By James M. Dedman III and George R. Dekle Sr | The Lawbook Exchange Press | $75 hardcover | 414 pages | 2016 | Reviewed by William J. Landers

The kidnapping and death of the “Lindbergh” baby in March 1932, created a media storm and a series of trials not seen before. The Crime of the Century was followed by the Trial(s) of the Century, which were followed by a never-ending stream of books supporting or attacking the conviction and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The two experienced criminal trial lawyers who wrote this book have successfully taken a different approach — analyzing and critiquing the trials and the performance of the attorneys from the perspective of trial lawyers. The result is a book that should be of interest of both law students and experienced attorneys.

Lindberg book coverIn 1932, Charles Lindbergh Sr., was one of the most famous people in America. His solo transatlantic flight in 1927 had captured the imagination of the entire world. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor. His plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, is housed in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. But, tragedy struck when his 20-month-old son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped and murdered on March 1, 1932, from their new home in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.

Two years later, Richard Bruno Hauptmann, a 34-year-old German immigrant carpenter, living in the Bronx, was arrested, extradited to New Jersey, tried and convicted, had his appeals denied, and was executed in April, 1936. After his arrest, he gave a number of contradictory statements to the police, but denied his guilt; so, frustrating the police that they unsuccessfully tried to beat a confession out of him. Evidence tying him to the crime included a homemade ladder found outside the Lindbergh house, handwritten ransom notes, and possession or use of some of the notes from the $50,000 ransom.

The first hearing subjected to forensic analysis by the authors was the hearing in New York to decide whether to extradite Hauptmann to New Jersey to face a murder charge. The defense sought to prove that Hauptmann was in New York on the night of the kidnapping. The burden of proof on the defense was “clear and convincing”. The defense had little time to prepare and, as the authors point out, clearly had not carefully studied the evidence. The authors provide a careful explanation of strategic and evidentiary points at this hearing, ultimately concluding that “trial lawyers may question [the] decision to contest extradition”, as it “gave the prosecution a preview of the defense and provided them with more impeachment material for the trial.”

Moving to the trial, the authors analyze the preparation of the cases for both the prosecution and the defense. They craft a suggested factual theory and a case theory based upon the way the prosecution presented its theory to the jury. They also created a detailed elements worksheet to show how a case should be tried for the prosecution. The failure to have such a checklist was evident in the prosecution’s potentially devastating failure to prove one of the elements of the case.

As the case would involve many expert witnesses (metallurgy, wood, and handwriting), they construct a helpful diagram to show how the prosecution could have tied this complex testimony back to the key evidence tying the defendant to the crime — “Ladder, Letters, and Loot.”

A similar, thorough analysis is given to every phase of the trial. The prosecution’s opening statement is analyzed and a grave tactical error elucidated. A better opening statement is presented by the authors. The comparison of the two is compelling. Mistakes in cross-examination strategy are highlighted and improvements suggested.

The defense is given the same treatment. The haphazard order of proof was used as a backdrop to provide a better outline of discrete case modules for the defense. Lack of defense witness preparation is demonstrated by the devastating prosecution cross-examination of the defendant. And, as the authors point out (and those of us who knew Memphis trial lawyer David Caywood would know well), the defendant’s case could have been destroyed in the jury’s eyes by the New Jersey legal doctrine of “false in one thing false in everything.”

Closing arguments (summations) are reviewed and critiqued. One of the strengths of this book is the authors’ consistent review of the attorneys’ work followed by the authors’ suggested improvements. They continued this approach in the summation chapter.

The book closes with a review of the events following the verdict. The side show atmosphere surrounding this trial continued up until Hauptmann’s execution. I liked this book both as a review of these fascinating and tragic events and as a critique of the performance of the litigants (and others) throughout the judicial process. Using summaries of the actual trials as a method for contrasting their expert analytical suggestions, the authors have written a book that could be a useful and entertaining text for a law school trial practice course.
 


BILL LANDERS is a graduate of Mississippi State University and Ole Miss Law School. He practiced commercial litigation for 20 years in Memphis with Martin, Tate, Morrow & Marston PC He currently is a principal with The Todd Organization focusing on non-qualified executive benefit plans, corporate-owned life insurance, and bank-owned life insurance.

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