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  • Reasonable Doubts:Crime and Punishment
  • Gregg Crane (bio)

The ubiquity of crime stories in news reports, television shows, films, and popular novels would seem to indicate, among other things, that crime makes for compelling reading and viewing. Certain tales of crime and punishment have had a visceral and lasting grip on my imagination. I vividly remember reading about Richard Speck in the summer of 1966—how he brutally murdered eight young women studying to be nurses and almost slipped through the fingers of the Chicago police, how Cora Amurao escaped by hiding under a bed, and how the prosecution obtained a conviction despite the exclusion of certain key bits of physical evidence. Years later, I lingered in the crime section of my law school's library, absorbing tales of the Kray brothers and Murder Inc. when I should have been preparing for the bar examination. Recently, I was reminded of a kindred distraction while reading Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice (2005) by Lawrence M. Solan and Peter M. Tiersma. Instead of focusing on the key doctrinal issues and logical force of the authors' argument, I kept getting caught up in the narrative details of the criminal cases, reading for story, not content.

This diversion, however, is not entirely my fault. In their persuasive argument for a contextualist approach to interpreting language in criminal cases, Solan and Tiersma's fine study invites us to read for story, or, I should say, stories. Displaying a sensitivity to narrative and language that one expects from literary critics, Solan and Tiersma show how different bits of contextual information inflect or redirect our impression of the narrative in dispute as well as our sense of the ethical and legal stakes of that story. The cases and examples they analyze remind us that, in a legal proceeding, each narrative of key events is shadowed by variant and opposed versions. Law stories are never singular, and legal disputes engage the reader (or juror) in the imaginative process of tracing and judging narrative variations. All four of the books discussed here recognize the contested and multiple nature of the crime story. Directly or indirectly, they variously endorse the unsettling process of storytelling [End Page 797] and moral judgment through which we move from a comfortable absorption in single narrative and familiar formulation of relevant values to a troublingly diverse set of stories and ethical perspectives and, finally, to what seems to be the most plausible narrative and a moral conclusion which is at best tentative and hedged.

One of the cases Solan and Tiersma discuss is Brewer v. Williams. Brewer involved a conversation between detectives and Robert Williams, an escaped mental patient who was suspected of killing ten-year-old Pamela Powers. During a drive from Davenport to Des Moines, Iowa, for further proceedings, one of the detectives spoke to Williams out of the presence of his lawyer:

I want to give you something to think about while we're traveling down the road.... Number one, I want you to observe the weather conditions, it's raining, it's sleeting, it's freezing, driving is very treacherous, visibility is poor, it's going to be dark early this evening. They are predicting several inches of snow for tonight, and I feel that you yourself are the only person that knows where this little girl's body is, that you yourself may be unable to find it. And, since we will be going right past the area on the way into Des Moines, I feel that we could stop and locate the body, that the parents of this little girl should be entitled to a Christian burial for the little girl who was snatched away from them on Christmas Eve and murdered.

(Solan and Tiersma 65)

The gambit worked. Williams led the police to Pamela's body, ensuring his conviction for murder.

Solan and Tiersma use Brewer as support for their argument that courts should consistently consider context and avoid a literalist approach to language in criminal cases. For their purposes, the key issue on appeal in Brewer was whether the detective's "Christian burial speech" amounted to an impermissible interrogation. Were the detective's comments...


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