I subscribe to a web group devoted to the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Eighty years after the crime, people are still debating the guilt or innocence of Bruno Hauptmann and floating theories that others were involved in the kidnapping. When I first began delving into the case, I ran across all sorts of theories explaining why Hauptmann was innocent and why someone else was responsible for the kidnapping. Here lately it seems that the fashionable theories posit that Hauptmann had an accomplice or accomplices. A theory that Hauptmann had accomplices has more prior probability than a theory of Hauptmann’s innocence. Let us save discussion of this second theory until we have investigated the first.
We begin any investigation of the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case with the irrefutable fact that Hauptmann was duly convicted by a jury and that the conviction held up on appeal. In the law, this fact gives rise to a heavy presumption that Hauptmann was in fact guilty and places the burden of proof squarely on proponents of Hauptmann’s innocence. In order to carry the burden of proof that Hauptmann was innocent, we must invalidate the conviction, and in order to do that we must refute the evidence presented at trial. To refute the evidence presented at trial, we must (1) completely undermine it, and (2) offer compelling evidence of Hauptmann’s innocence.
There are two ways to present compelling evidence of Hauptmann’s innocence. (1) Show that he could not possibly have committed the crime, or (2) prove someone else committed the crime. We have an uphill battle doing this because the defense failed at both of these efforts during the trial. An after-the-fact attempt to prove Hauptmann could not possibly have committed the crime is a pretty tall order. The best shot at carrying this theory came during the trial, and the defense missed. A more feasible way to exonerate Hauptmann is to prove someone else committed the crime.
In order to prove someone else committed the crime we must (1) identify a candidate and (2) Offer compelling evidence that our candidate is the culprit.
We can outline our task in this way:
 Completely undermine the evidence of Hauptmann’s guilt; and
 Offer compelling evidence of Hauptmann’s innocence by
[a] Naming a new candidate for perpetrator, and
[b] Offering compelling evidence that our candidate committed the crime.
Most of the Hauptmann-was-innocent theories employ three strategies to achieve the first step. They engage in Kripkean dogmatism, employ a common defense strategy of divide-and-conquer, and take advantage of the phenomenon of underdetermination.
The term Kripkean dogmatism comes from a contemporary philosopher by the name of Saul Kripke, who described what he called a dogmatism paradox. It works like this:
(1) Any evidence contrary to what I believe is false.
(2) I believe that Bruno Hauptmann is innocent.
(3) Evidence of Bruno Hauptmann’s guilt must be false.
I am bolstered in my belief by the phenomenon of underdetermination, which is the ally of all accused of crime. Philosophers tell us that nothing is absolutely certain, that the evidence we amass for any proposition always fails to prove the proposition beyond all doubt. Just last night I read an article by a contemporary philosopher which argued that we cannot even be certain that we exist as anything more than a random combination of atoms. Inventive defenders can always come up with objections to the evidence, point to anomalies in the evidence, and devise Rube Goldberg theories to explain away the evidence. Kripkean dogmatism can also come into play with positive evidence. It works like this:
(1) Any evidence supporting my belief system must be true.
(2) I believe Bruno Hauptmann is innocent.
(3) Evidence of Bruno Hauptmann’s innocence must be true.
By employing the strategy of divide-and-conquer, I look at each individual piece of evidence, proclaim it insufficient to prove Hauptmann’s guilt, and dismiss it from consideration. The problem with this strategy is that no single piece of evidence is sufficient to prove guilt. All the evidence, strong and weak, must be considered together in determining guilt.
Any quantum of evidence, no matter how convincing, can be “defeated” by employing this type of reasoning. This form of reasoning drives all conspiracy theories and explains why we still have people who believe that the earth is flat. Of course those who believe we live on the inside surface of a hollow earth know that the flat earthers are mistaken.
Even assuming that the evidence of Hauptmann’s guilt is undermined, we still have not achieved our objective of proving him innocent. The law recognizes that cases, unlike wine, do not get better with age. There must be compelling evidence of innocence. Simply raising suspicions that someone else might have committed the crime does not carry the burden of proof. Of course we can again employ Kripkean dogmatism to cherry pick our evidence, ignore counter evidence, and build a house-of-cards case against someone else.
Now let’s talk about theories that Hauptmann had an accomplice. We begin with the assumption that Hauptmann is guilty. Our next step is to build a compelling case against someone else. It couldn’t be done back when the case was tried. It can’t be done now. And it doesn’t appear to me that it is worth the effort to try.
NB: Our discussion of the issue of whether Hauptmann was actually innocent has been guided by the rationale of William T. Moore, District Judge of the Southern District of Georgia, as expressed in the case of In re Davis, Case No. CV409-130, 2010 WL 3385081 (2010). In his opinion Judge Moore states a methodology for evaluating claims of actual innocence and engages in a searching analysis of a claim of actual innocence. The opinion not only provides a template for conducting such evaluations, but gives an excellent example of how such evaluations should be conducted. You can read part one of his opinion here: http://www.gasd.uscourts.gov/pdf/409cv00130_92part1.pdf, and part two here: http://www.gasd.uscourts.gov/pdf/409cv00130_92part2.pdf.