The Art of the Judicial Narrative

As a former English major, I try to pay close attention to the language choice, tone, and structure of judicial opinions.  This morning I reread Justice Kagan’s majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama, and I was struck by her strategic use of the facts to support the holding.

Justice Kagan begins the opinion with reference to “two 14-year-old offenders.”  They are not “murderers under the age of 18,” as described by Justice Alito in his dissent, but two young teens who have broken the law.  In the very first section of the opinion, we learn that Kuntrell Jackson — like most adolescents — did not act alone.  He was with two other “boys” when they decided to rob a video store.  When the two others entered the store, one (Derrick Shields) with a sawed-off shotgun in his coat sleeve, Kuntrell “decided to stay outside.”  He made a deliberate decision then not to go into the store.  Was he the designated look-out?  Did he lack the stomach for a direct confrontation?  We can’t tell from the facts provided, but it is possible. Meanwhile inside the store, the clerk, Laurie Troup, refused to turn over the money.  Kuntrell then entered the store, and when Troup threatened to call the police, Shields (not Kuntrell) shot her.  The three boys fled, empty-handed.  When the case came to court, the judge refused to transfer it from adult to juvenile court.  Kuntrell’s prior record had consisted of shoplifting and car theft.

In the next section of the opinion, we learn details about the other 14-year-old, Evan Miller.  His family background is one shared by many who end up in the juvenile and criminal justice systems — a dual jurisdiction kid, in and out of foster care, with a mother who was an alcoholic and addict and an abusive step-father.  Evan showed signs of mental illness:  he had attempted suicide four times — the first when he was just six years old.

The facts of Evan’s case parallel those of Kuntrell — he did not act alone, and when he did act, it was impulsive.  The victim, Cole Cannon, had come to Evan’s home “to make a drug deal with [Evan’s] mother.” Evan and another teenager, Colby Smith, followed Cannon back to his trailer where they all smoked weed and got high.  After Cannon “passed out,” Evan took his wallet and split the money with Smith; when Evan tried to replace the wallet, Cannon woke up and grabbed him by the throat.  Smith (not Evan) hit Cannon with a nearby baseball bat; after Cannon released his grip on Evan’s throat, Evan grabbed the bat and repeatedly struck Cannon.  Smith and Evan left the trailer and then returned to set it on fire; Cannon died from his injuries and smoke inhalation.  In this case, too, the judge kept the case in adult court.  Evan’s prior offenses had been for truancy and criminal mischief.

These are not sympathetic crimes.  Homicides never are.  But knowing the backgrounds of the teenagers involved and the details of what happened enables us to put the cases in context, to better determine an appropriate punishment.   Knowing the details reminds us that Kuntrell and Evan are human beings whose life history tells us something about each boy’s character and his culpability.

After setting out the law, Justice Kagan returns to the facts to illustrate that when a sentencer “treats every child as an adult” or fails to distinguish between “the 14-year-old and the 17-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” he “misses too much.”

Justice Kagan reminds us that Kuntrell “did not fire the bullet that killed Laurie Troup” and that there was no evidence that he had intended her death.  No, he hadn’t walked away after learning that his friend had a gun, but peer pressure likely played a role.  We also learn that Evan was raised within a family where violence was the norm:  both his mother and grandmother had previously shot people.

Justice Kagan uses these facts to support the Court’s conclusion: not that Kuntrell and Evan did not deserve “severe punishment,” not that they did not deserve life without parole, but that the “harshest prison sentence” should not be automatically imposed.

Your thoughts?  Do you have a favorite court opinion?  Or a paragraph, line, or footnote that you are particularly fond of?  Please share in the comments!

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Adult Court, Analysis, Case Law, Miller v. Alabama, Sentencing, U.S. Supreme Court. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Art of the Judicial Narrative

  1. Eric Zogry says:

    I was surprised at the informality, for lack of a better word, of the language and structure of the sentences. USSC cases used to read so arcane, now it’s like a conversation. It’s refreshing!

  2. David Tanenhaus says:

    I enjoyed this post. Linda Edwards, my colleague at UNLV, has a great book on the use of narratives in brief writing. Here’s the link:

  3. tbirckhe says:

    Thanks, David. The book looks very helpful.