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Anna Hauptmann Sues a State to Absolve Her Husband of 'The Crime of the Century'

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Until the stranger appeared on her doorstep last year, Anna Hauptmann was resigned to the fact that she might die before she could prove her husband’s innocence. It has been 46 years since Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed for the kidnapping and murder of the 18-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, the writer Anne Morrow. All this time Anna has believed unwaveringly in Richard’s innocence. But she was 82, and losing hope, when Robert Bryan, a San Francisco lawyer, came to her Yeadon, Pa. door. He announced that he had come to believe that Richard Hauptmann was innocent and was determined to prove it. “Now I know why I am still alive,” she told Bryan. “God wants the truth to be known.”

Bryan, 39, became interested in the case in 1972 when he was representing a man who said he was the Lindbergh baby. Bryan’s research into court records convinced him that Hauptmann had been railroaded. Now, with Bryan’s help, Anna Hauptmann has filed suit, seeking $100 million in damages from the state of New Jersey, various former police officials and trial prosecutor David Wilentz, 86. Also named as a defendant are the Hearst newspapers, which paid for Hauptmann’s defense by a lawyer who allegedly drank heavily and performed poorly. The lawsuit charges that the defendants “continue to conceal, withhold, remove and otherwise destroy material evidence and facts bearing upon the innocence of Richard Hauptmann.”

The state is pressing to have the suit dismissed, but Bryan is confident it will come to trial. In 1981 New Jersey’s then Governor, Brendan Byrne, ordered the state to open to the public more than 90,000 state documents on the case, and this month a New Jersey judge will hear Anna’s request that the state also return personal items that it has held for 48 years. Claims Bryan: “The state’s own evidence indicates Hauptmann was innocent.”

There have always been doubts about Hauptmann’s guilt. His 1935 trial was an emotional courtroom circus in which spectators cheered when the German immigrant was convicted of breaking into the Lindbergh home near Hopewell, N.J., murdering the child, and extracting $50,000 in ransom. Much of the case rested on circumstantial evidence and dubious eyewitness identifications. Now Bryan and his client say that the newly unearthed documents show abundant proof of misconduct by the prosecution. The lawyer claims that government agents manufactured much of the evidence against Hauptmann—including testimony that a ladder used in the kidnapping was partially built of wood from the defendant’s home—and used deception and beating to try to coerce a confession. Anna still maintains that she was with her husband throughout the night of March 1, 1932, when the crime was committed—and she recently passed a lie detector test. Prosecutor David Wilentz, who is still practicing law, is unmoved. “Why should I worry?” he has been quoted as saying. “We tried a case based on the evidence. We won a conviction against a guilty man.”

Anna Hauptmann realizes that her days may be numbered, but Bryan vows that he will carry on the case for her estate, if necessary. One reason: to clear the Hauptmann name for Anna and Richard’s only son, Manfred, now 48 and living quietly in an undisclosed location. “He has made a good life,” Anna says proudly. Anna admits that this lawsuit has awakened dark memories. “I live through this pain again,” she says, “but Richard is worth it.” Anna still wears the wedding band Hauptmann placed on her finger 57 years ago. Marry again? “I couldn’t be a good wife for someone else. It’s always Richard there.”