Lindbergh baby kidnapping case revisited, revised

The Airman and the Carpenter: The Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann, by Ludovic Kennedy. New York: Viking. 400 pp. Illustrated. $18.95. Fifty years ago, a carpenter named Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal immigrant who fled to the United States to escape the economic hardships of postwar Germany, was tried, convicted, and executed for committing one of the most appalling and certainly one of the most publicized crimes of the American 1930s: the kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old baby son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Found guilty, first in the court of public opinion, then in a court of law, Hauptmann went to his death proclaiming his innocence.

When British author and journalist Ludovic Kennedy happened to see Hauptmann's widow, Anna, on the ``Today'' show one morning in 1981, she was still proclaiming her husband's innocence. Moved by her sincerity, Kennedy, who had written books that led to the reversal of convictions in three British murder cases, decided to investigate the Lindbergh case. His film documentary for the BBC, ``Who Killed the Lindbergh Baby?,'' was broadcast in 1982 and is being rebroadcast this month by the PBS network. But to tell the full story, Kennedy knew he had to write a book.

This compelling, cogently written, and engrossing account of the Lindbergh case indicates -- horrifyingly -- that only one solid piece of evidence linked Hauptmann to the crime: some marked ransom money. Hauptmann's explanation of how he came to possess these bills was disregarded. In view of the publicity surrounding the case and in light of the other evidence amassed against him, his protestations carried little weight.

But as Kennedy's careful research shows, most of the evidence against Hauptmann was fabricated by the police. Assuredly, they were not out to ``get'' an innocent man. They were acting in good faith, convinced that Hauptmann was the man they had so desperately been seeking and determined to build a strong case.

The result of this determination was not only the fabrication of evidence against Hauptmann, but also the destruction of evidence confirming his innocence (e.g., a record showing he had been at work when the kidnapping was committed) or pointing to the guilt of others.

Kennedy presents a strong and believable case for Hauptmann's innocence. Who, then, killed the Lindbergh baby? Had the law-enforcement agencies of the time been more concerned with ferreting out the truth than with responding to public outrage, the real killer might well have been caught and, still more important, a man who was very probably innocent would not have been killed.

Beyond his eloquent exposition of the highways and byways of this particular case, Kennedy raises some vital questions about the quality of justice in America. Many of the abuses of the legal system as well as the excesses of the press that were rampant in the 1930s have been corrected, if not completely eliminated.

Yet two essential problems remain, which Kennedy sees as sources of future injustices. One is the adversarial nature of the justice system, which encourages prosecution and defense to engage in a sparring match rather than a dispassionate search for the truth.

The second problem, a potential source of still more serious errors but simpler to correct, is the reinstitution of the death penalty, which makes the mistakes that can and will happen even under the best system so tragically irrevocable.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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