Harvard Law School Professor William J. Stuntz died of cancer at age 52 on March 15th. Elizabeth Knoll, HUP Senior Editor for the Behavioral Sciences and Law, writes below of Professor Stuntz’s important forthcoming book, and of his determination to complete it in the time that he had.
When I last saw Bill, at a law school workshop some months ago, he was deep in conversation with a colleague. At one point he laughed, and I thought, “For a dying man you look amazingly alive.”
He stayed wholeheartedly alive and engaged with the world until the end. He talked about his approaching death as matter-of-factly as most of us would talk about an inconvenient business trip–in fact, with a lot less complaining. What he seemed to want most was to be with his family and to finish his book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, which we will publish this September.
In the book, Bill argues that the liberal Warren Court’s emphasis on procedural protections for those accused of crimes, followed by a backlash of increasingly draconian criminal legislation and law enforcement, has created an overburdened and unjust system in which too many people—especially poor black men—are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Jury trials have all but vanished, to be replaced by plea bargaining deals. If you are arrested and charged, and you don’t have a lawyer, you will almost certainly end up having to plead guilty to something. On the other hand, defendants with resources can often focus on procedural issues to avoid facing the substance of the case against them. With pungent insights on every page, Bill’s book is a clear-eyed, rigorous, and humane account of how truly unjust our system has become.
As Bill shows, the disparities that result from our system affect victims as well as the accused. He noted as much in a post on his blog a couple of years back:
The bottom line is as simple as it is awful: When whites are robbed, raped, beaten, and killed, their victimizers are usually punished. When the same crimes happen to blacks, the usual result is: nothing. No arrest, no prosecution, no conviction.
The Collapse of American Criminal Justice documents more thoroughly than any previous study the developments that have led us to this point and the reforms required to work towards a more just system.
As Bill would surely agree, no one really writes a book alone (at least not a book that’s any good). Everyone needs help. The best books are written by the people who have the best friends. Being acutely–if not excessively–aware of his possible blind spots, Bill sought and heeded advice. When the three outside reviews arranged for by HUP gave him praise as well as warnings, his response characteristically thanked the reviewers for their generosity, and spent five times as much space judiciously considering their criticisms. Not every author of Bill's stature is so willing to listen so carefully to people who disagree with him.
He sent us the final manuscript in the week that he went on hospice care. He admitted wryly that he would be looking for distraction, so in the next few weeks we sent possible titles, catalog copy, and art back and forth by email. He wrote of Jill Breitbarth’s jacket design, “The more I look at it, the better I like it. The trees connote prison bars, but they are also living, breathing things. And the picture has something of the sense of sinking, as though the water were rising and cannot be stopped.”
One afternoon about eighteen months ago, as we were talking about the incomplete first draft of the manuscript, Bill worried aloud about how he could finish it, given his limited time. “I don’t want to publish a bad posthumous book,” he said, with a little frown.
It’s safe to say that he won’t. The waters rose around him at last, but his book will remain. Its extraordinary astuteness, range, and sense of justice are a testament to the enduring search for wisdom and mercy. Many of us can only see and hope for wisdom and mercy in the human realm. Bill could sometimes glimpse it in the divine.
As he always said, he was a fortunate man.