Bill Stuntz; taught Christian legal theory at Harvard

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Faith, Bill Stuntz wrote, is “like a love song that makes you weep every time you hear it. More than I believe in any set of abstract propositions, I believe in that love song.’’

A decade of debilitating back pain, and a terminal cancer diagnosis, tested that belief, however, as Mr. Stuntz found a measure of grace in family and friendship.

“My experience of cancer especially is that God is just so eager to bless,’’ he told Timothy Dalrymple a year ago in an interview for the religion and spirituality website

“Since my cancer diagnosis, I have experienced more friendship from more people than at any other time in my life. I’ve experienced not just a quality of medical care but a kind of medical care, humane medical care delivered by humane and decent people, that seems Christ-like to me. . . . I do hunger for blessing in the midst of these medical conditions, but I regularly find that hunger satisfied.’’

A scholar of criminal procedure whose expertise seemed to range everywhere, from the death penalty to drug arrests, he was a professor for about 25 years, the last 11 at Harvard Law School. Mr. Stuntz, whose soaring intellect and pronounced humility made him a favorite of students and popular with colleagues across the ideological spectrum, died in his Belmont home Tuesday, three years after being diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 52.

Dean Martha Minow wrote in a message to Harvard Law School that “the larger community of scholars, and the communities connected through Bill’s writings, are better, wiser, kinder because of Bill. . . . In knowing Bill, we couldn’t help but be reminded to live life as our better selves.’’

“His gifts to society through his scholarship and teaching on criminal law and justice changed and improved academic inquiry and policies on the ground,’’ she wrote. “His scholarship and teaching of Christian legal theory and of confronting life’s burdens inspire people in our community and well beyond it. He imbued his work and his life with a vision of mercy and compassion.’’

With a single word and a warm gesture, Mr. Stuntz could make a student feel valued.

“If somebody made a good point, he would say in this really appreciative tone, ‘Nice . . . nice,’ ’’ said Carol Steiker, a Harvard Law School professor who taught some classes with Mr. Stuntz. “He would say it in the kind of tone that someone else might use to describe a sports car or a vintage wine, and his whole face would light up. As a colleague, whenever I elicited a ‘nice,’ I was thrilled, but for students, I think it was empowering because he was willing to recognize how much they could contribute and how great their ideas could be.’’

He did so while enduring pain that would leave many bedridden. In high school, Mr. Stuntz injured his back in a car accident, and something slipped out of place 11 years ago when he was changing a tire. In a 2009 article for Christianity Today magazine, he likened his chronic pain to “having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up — and you can’t turn it down.’’ At times he walked with a cane or used a wheelchair when the pain became too intense.

“His was a faith of weakness, that God found him, and that’s what made it believable to him,’’ said his daughter, Sarah, of Cambridge. “His faith was not about how strong he was or how good he was.’’

Indeed, when Dalrymple asked if Mr. Stuntz was pleased with his life, he answered that while he had been “incredibly more blessed, along multiple dimensions, than I would have imagined when I was young,’’ he struggled with “an acute sense that I ought to have done better with the circumstances I was given. This is one of the reasons why it cut me so deeply when people suggested that suffering is God’s discipline — because I find it so very, very easy to believe in a God who is profoundly disappointed in me.’’

William J. Stuntz was born in Hyattsville, Md., and grew up in Annapolis, Md., the youngest and most intellectually precocious of five children.

“He was certainly reading by the time he was 3,’’ said his brother David of Durham, N.C. “He we reading out of the encyclopedia before he understood alphabetical order.’’

Mr. Stuntz graduated from Annapolis High School in 1976 and from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., four years later, having majored in English and history.

He liked to tell the story of how he met Ruth Councill. She shushed him when Mr. Stuntz was whispering to the guy next to him in the college choir. They married in 1980.

Mr. Stuntz graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1984 and, after two clerkships, taught there for 14 years before moving, in 2000, to Harvard.

Politically conservative, Mr. Stuntz was an occasional contributor to The Weekly Standard magazine, but labels were never a good fit. He could write just as eloquently about racial disparities and overcrowding in the nation’s prison system.

“One of the things that’s striking about Bill was that he was in many ways a bundle of contradictions,’’ Steiker said. “He was really successful, and yet extraordinarily humble. He was more conservative than many on the faculty, and also more radical in his views. His contradictions didn’t cancel each other out; they added up to make him really what people mean when they say ‘a true original.’ He’s someone who, I think, is truly irreplaceable. There are a lot of wonderful people, but there really isn’t anyone like him.’’

In addition to his wife, daughter, and brother, Mr. Stuntz leaves two sons, Andrew Stuntz and Samuel Cook-Stuntz, both of Cambridge; his parents, John and Sandy (Johnson) of Annapolis; a sister, Linda Adamson of Annapolis; and two other brothers, Michael of Silver Spring, Md., and Richard of Annapolis.

A memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. tomorrow in Park Street Church in Boston. Burial will be private.

As his illness progressed, Mr. Stuntz’s days became a meditation on the relationship between God and people, between living and dying, and he shared his insights in interviews and on the blog Less than the Least that he shared with David Skeel, a fellow evangelical who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“Over the past few years I have become less arrogant, less confident of my own judgments and insights, and better at listening to others,’’ Mr. Stuntz told Dalrymple. “As a result, I’ve become a better husband and father than I was. I love better than I did before.’’

The knowledge he would die soon was “a real mercy,’’ unexpectedly easy to take.

“Many people die suddenly, wholly unexpectedly, without any opportunity to prepare,’’ he said. “I have been given the opportunity to finish some work . . . and to do things for my children that I might not have done if I had assumed that I were going to live a long time yet. Those are incredible gifts.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at