"Clark Rockefeller" Convicted of Decades-Old California Murder

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
April 11 2013 2:44 PM

Annals of Failed Legal Strategies: My Client Is Too Smart to Commit Such a Stupid Murder

"Clark Rockefeller"
Christian Gerhartsreiter listens to the prosecutor during his murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court on March 18, 2013.

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

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On Wednesday, a California jury returned a guilty verdict in the case of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who had been charged with murdering John Sohus in 1985. Gerhartsreiter is better known as Clark Rockefeller, the name he used for nearly two decades, during which he convinced the Boston private-club set that he was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune. His imposture fell apart in 2008, when he was arrested after briefly kidnapping his young daughter in the wake of a contentious divorce from a wealthy woman he had married under false pretenses. Since then, Gerhartsreiter has been gradually unmasked as a con man for the ages, a serial fabulist who assumed false identities with ease and convinced others of his bona fides just as easily.

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Say what you will about Gerhartsreiter’s crimes, but you have to be pretty clever to sustain such a scheme for so long. And so I was thrilled to see that his defense attorney, Jeffrey Denner, used one of my favorite legal tactics in his closing argument: claiming that his client was too smart to commit such a stupid crime.

There was no direct evidence tying Gerhartsreiter to the murder of Sohus, the 27-year-old son of Gerhartsreiter’s then-landlord. (At the time of the murder, Gerhartsreiter was calling himself Christopher Chichester.) The defense built its case around Gerhartsreiter’s history of shiftiness, and two plastic bags found with the body, emblazoned with the logos of two universities Gerhartsreiter had attended. Denner argued that wrapping Sohus’ skull in those two incriminating bags would’ve made his client “one of the stupidest murderers in the history of Southern California”— that he might as well have left “a plaque there that says ‘burial by me, defendant Christopher Chichester.’ ”

The “too smart to be so stupid” card reeks of desperation, and defense attorneys generally do this when they’re out of better options. Take, for example, the case of Richard Keith Blake, a Canadian man who was accused of brutally stabbing two people during a home invasion, and then was found later wearing a blood-stained shirt and driving the victims’ car. “Nobody could be that stupid to formulate a plan like that, it’s just impossible,” Blake’s attorney told the jury. “They’d have to be a roaring, raving lunatic to even contemplate that situation.” The jury convicted Blake anyway.

The tactic occasionally succeeds, usually when a veteran criminal has been charged with an amateurish crime. In 2007, Ernst Stummer, a longtime Austrian thief described as “king of the burglars,” was acquitted of burglary after his lawyer successfully argued that Stummer would not have been so stupid as to break into an alarmed building, and certainly wouldn’t have used needle-nosed pliers on the job.

But juries generally don’t find it hard to believe that criminals can and do make really stupid mistakes. I think it’s unlikely that Clark Rockefeller would’ve killed John Sohus. I think it’s plausible that Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter would’ve done it. He was still a young man then, early in his career, and hadn’t yet grown into the master grifter he would become.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.