The Lindbergh Baby | Who Kidnapped and Killed Charles Lindbergh III
The job of analyzing the trial fell to Ahlgren . During his career he had defended people like Hauptmann, who were too poor to pay for their defense. When he went through the record, Ahlgren was appalled by what he found.
Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested on September 19, 1934, more than two years after a $50,000 payment was made to a man in a New York cemetery who came to be called “Cemetery John.” Earlier that month the slight German carpenter had cashed several gold certificates from the ransom with merchants in the Bronx. Although at the time of his arrest there was no further evidence linking Hauptmann to the murder, the police decided that he was the killer.
The trial was a media circus. The New York Daily Mirror hired lawyer Ed Reilly to represent Hauptmann and to provide an exclusive news pipeline. Reilly often showed up for trial with a hangover.
The defense had almost no money for expert witnesses and no access to police records, both of which would be standard practice today. Hauptmann, who spoke English with difficulty, wasn’t given a translator. Throughout the proceedings, Lindbergh sat at the prosecution table with a holstered pistol under his arm.
Much of the state’s evidence smelled unreliable to Ahlgren. At the trial, one man positively identified Hauptmann as “Cemetery John,” even though he had previously told the police that the carpenter wasn’t their man. Three New Jersey locals claimed they had seen Hauptmann near Lindbergh’s estate on or near the day of the kidnapping. One, who had just been fired from his job for stealing company funds, had been unable to identify Hauptmann in a photographic lineup and misdescribed his car prior to the trial.
Another was 87 years old and partially blind. During a post-trial interview with New Jersey governor Harold Hoffman, who was so disturbed by the verdict that he launched his own investigation, the old man identified an 18-inch-high silver cup filled with flowers as a lady’s hat.
The third testified that he had seen Hauptmann lurking about Hopewell on two separate occasions and that he had reported this to the police. The opposite was the case: Before the trial, he had told the police he hadn’t seen anyone suspicious prior to the child’s disappearance. Later he admitted to Hoffmann that his testimony was due in part to a desire to share in the reward money.
None of this information was available to the defense.
In retrospect, Ahlgren identified nine factors of evidence that ultimately sent Hauptmann to the electric chair. The most important may have been the money.
“Hauptmann may have been an extortionist,” says Ahlgren, “but the issue is: Was he the guy on the ladder in New Jersey? If the defense had admitted his involvement in the extortion attempt, they would have eliminated most of the testimony against him. He may have gone to jail for a short period of time, but he wouldn’t have gotten the electric chair. Instead they had all these witnesses who made Hauptmann look like a liar about the money. And if he’d lie about the money, well, why wouldn’t he lie about the murder?”