The Massachusetts Appeals Court has affirmed the kidnapping and battery conviction of a notorious imposter who called himself Clark Rockefeller.
On September 28 a three-judge panel upheld the conviction of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter on charges of parental kidnapping and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to a maximum of five years in state prison for both charges.
Gerhartsreiter is a German man who long faked ties to the wealthy American family of his assumed surname. He was discovered to have used several different aliases.
The incidents that led to charges against Gerhartsreiter happened in late July 2008 during his supervised visit with his seven-year-old daughter, Reigh, in Boston.
At the time, Gerhartsreiter’s ex-wife Sandra Boss and the daughter were living in London. As part of the divorce proceedings, Boss gave Gerhartsreiter $800,000, two cars and Boss’s engagement ring.
During the visit, Gerhartsreiter asked a livery car driver to help him “escape the company of a troublesome family friend.” The person Gerhartsreiter was referring to was Howard Yaffe, a social worker who was supervising Gerhartsreiter’s visits with his daughter. After Gerhartsreiter and his daughter jumped into the car, Yaffe attempted to stop it by grabbing the car door and running alongside it. He let go but suffered minor injuries.
Gerhartsreiter was arrested in Baltimore in August 2008, and his daughter was recovered.
That September, Gerhartsreiter was indicted by a Massachusetts grand jury for the two charges that stuck, plus an additional assault and battery charge and a charge of furnishing a false name to a law enforcement officer. He was convicted in June 2009.
Gerhartsreiter is separately charged with the murder of Jonathan Sohus. Sohus disappeared in 1985, while Gerhartsreiter was renting a guesthouse at his mother’s San Marino, Calif., home under the name Christopher Chichester. Next month, pretrial proceedings are scheduled in Alhambra Superior Court in California, according to Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Gerhartsreiter raised a laundry list of arguments on appeal of his kidnapping/battery conviction. He claimed the publicity surrounding his case impeded his right to trial by a fair and impartial jury, that the prosecutor made improper closing argument remarks and that there was insufficient evidence for conviction on the assault with a dangerous weapon charge.
In addition, he argued that the judge improperly admitted certain testimony from the state’s psychiatric expert and testimony that Gerhartsreiter was competent to stand trial. He further claimed the judge erroneously ruled that certain statements he made to law enforcement officers were voluntary.
Justice R. Malcolm Graham wrote the opinion in Commonwealth v. Gerhartsreiter, joined by justices Elspeth Cypher and Scott Kafker.
On the publicity issue, Graham wrote that Suffolk County’s large population base weighs against a finding of prejudice due to publicity: “[W]hile the defendant has shown the existence of substantial pretrial publicity surrounding the kidnapping that was somewhat sensational, the coverage focused primarily on the defendant’s name change and apparent affectation of an upper-class lifestyle.”
Graham rejected Gerhartsreiter’s argument that a state expert psychiatrist, who testified that Gerhartsreiter had a mixed personality disorder with narcissistic and antisocial traits, misstated the legal standard for criminal responsibility: “A qualified expert may provide expert testimony regarding the defendant’s mental condition at the time of the crime without referring to the [case law] standard, and the jury may consider such evidence to assess criminal responsibility.”
On the competency argument, Graham noted that competency to stand trial and whether there’s guilt for a charged offense because of a lack of criminal responsibility are different questions. “The judge’s clear instructions emphasized the difference between competency and criminal responsibility, and adequately cleared any confusion that may have resulted from the admission of the evidence of the defendant’s competency.”
Graham failed to find fault with the way the trial judge handled publicity during jury deliberations about Gerhartsreiter’s pending indictment in the Sohus case.
“[T]here was no evidence that extraneous material had actually reached the jury, and the defendant did not seek any inquiry of the jury,” he wrote.
Graham also ruled that it was not improper for the prosecutor to argue that Gerhartsreiter’s lack of criminal responsibility defense was his latest manipulation. “Viewed in context, the prosecutor’s remarks would have been seen by a rational juror as directed not at the propriety of the insanity defense but as fairly commenting on the inherent implausibility or unreliability of the defendant’s claim of mental illness, i.e., as a claim fabricated by the defendant to escape the consequences of his actions.”
Finally, Graham rejected Gerhartsreiter’s challenge to the conviction based on the argument that the driver acted on his own. “The Commonwealth’s evidence thus could be fairly deemed the type of wanton or reckless conduct resulting in harm to another that is the legal equivalent of intentional conduct for purposes of establishing assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon.”
Gerhartsreiter’s lawyer, Jeffrey Denner, a Boston-based criminal and civil defense attorney at Denner Pellegrino, said he was deeply disappointed and is “looking at what kind of further review we might get.”
“To some extent it underscores the difficulty anybody has when they raise insanity as a defense. There is a feeling that it’s not a legitimate defense and it’s not taken perhaps as seriously as we believe it should be,” Denner said.
In an e-mailed statement through a spokesperson, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley wrote, “The defendant received a fair trial before an impartial jury. He was convicted on the evidence, which was abundant and persuasive. The prosecutor’s statements were firmly grounded in the law. This was the right decision by the Appeals Court, and we’re pleased to see that the jury’s verdict stands.”
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.