William J. Stuntz, an influential legal scholar known for his counterintuitive insights, who blamed liberal judges, conservative legislators and ambitious prosecutors for what he saw as a criminal justice system that imprisons far too many people, died on Tuesday at his home in Belmont, Mass. He was 52.
His family announced the death, which followed three years of treatment for metastatic colon cancer.
Though Mr. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, advised public officials and wrote often in the popular press, his greatest influence was with legal scholars. After he burst on the scene in the 1980s with a flurry of fresh ideas and interpretations, “you saw a snowballing of references to him,” said Daniel C. Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School.
Justice Elena Kagan of the United States Supreme Court said in an interview Friday that Mr. Stuntz’s work was “impossible to pigeonhole,” despite his self-professed conservative inclinations.
“What was fascinating about him was that everybody read him and listened to him and took seriously what he said,” said Justice Kagan, who worked with Mr. Stuntz when she was dean of Harvard Law School. Scholars came to call his ideas “Stuntzian,” she said.
Mr. Stuntz looked at criminal law as a collection of “pathologies,” beginning with the Supreme Court’s decisions to give greater protections to people charged with crimes. State legislatures responded to those rulings with laws that toughened sentencing and defined crime more broadly, leading to more jail time and more arrests, disproportionately affecting the poor and minorities.
But Mr. Stuntz said the legislatures neglected to appropriate enough money to deal with the added arrests, particularly for public defenders and others paid by the government to defend the indigent. Adding to the focus on the poor, he said, was prosecutors’ reluctance to bring to trial people who could afford lawyers and who could employ the new court-ordered constitutional protections.
Prosecutors then used their discretion to negotiate guilty pleas with public defenders. The prosecutors could sift through the broader array of criminal charges and sentences passed by legislators to make deals, taking many of what Mr. Stuntz called “easy guilty pleas.”
One result was the sort of paradox he loved to illuminate. “Ever since the 1960s, the right has argued that criminal procedure frees too many of the guilty,” he wrote in The Yale Law Journal in 1997. “The better criticism may be that it helps to imprison too many of the innocent.”
Mr. Richman said Mr. Stuntz believed that an equally worrisome problem was that the essential question of guilt or innocence could get lost. For trials of people who can afford lawyers, questions of procedure can supersede substance. Plea deals made by the poor are often just that — deals — even though the convicted person has to admit guilt.
Mr. Stuntz wrote for newspapers and magazines on issues beyond the law. In an article in The New Republic in 2006, he raised liberal eyebrows by saying that government could be more effective in fighting terrorism if it were less transparent and more concerned with protecting its own privacy than that of its citizens.
Carol Steiker, a Harvard law professor, said Mr. Stuntz was not only “considerably to the right of your average Harvard law professor” but also unusual at the university because he was an evangelical Christian. She said he had begun to use the word “mercy” among the “values he thought the criminal justice system should have, but didn’t.”
Even when applying Christian principles, he had surprises. In one instance he chided Christian conservatives’ demand for “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution, wondering why they did not regard this as idolatrous. He said their overwhelming identification with one party, the Republicans, had “poisoned politics in deep ways.”
William John Stuntz was born in Washington on July 3, 1958, grew up in Annapolis, Md., and graduated from the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia School of Law. He clerked for Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and taught at the University of Virginia for 14 years.
“He leapt to the top of the field in the early days of his entering the law professor world,” said Martha L. Minow, the current dean of Harvard Law School.
Harvard hired him in 2000, and in 2006 he was named the Henry J. Friendly professor. This fall, Harvard University Press will publish his book “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice.” Also this fall, Cambridge University Press will publish a book of essays on the implications of his scholarship.
Mr. Stuntz is survived by his wife, Ruth; his children, Sarah Stuntz, Andrew Stuntz and Samuel Cook-Stuntz; his parents, John and Sandy Stuntz; his sister, Linda Adamson; and his brothers, Richard, Michael and David.
Mr. Stuntz wrote extensively about the chronic pain he suffered after a back injury in 1999, saying he felt better after realizing it was futile to dream of being painless. “Hopelessness turns out to be surprisingly good medicine,” he wrote.
He kept writing when he was dying of cancer, saying that he found hope in a single passage of the Book of Job. “You will call and I will answer,” Job says. “You will long for the creature your hands have made.”
Mr. Stuntz wrote, “The concept that God longs for the likes of me is so unbelievably sweet.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 22, 2011
An obituary on Monday about the legal scholar William J. Stuntz omitted one of three brothers who are among his survivors. Besides Richard and David, he is also survived by Michael. The obituary also misstated the title of Mr. Stuntz’s forthcoming book. It is “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” — not “Fighting Crime: Race, Crime, and Democracy in America,” which had been a tentative title.