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Counting each shot

Today I happened to be reading Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and came unexpectedly across a lesson in storytelling. Or actually, two lessons.

In Atkins, a majority of the Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the mentally retarded. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, wants to make the defendant’s mental retardation outweigh the heinousness of the crime. So he must downplay the crime. Notice how he does this:

At approximately midnight on August 16, 1996, Atkins and William Jones, armed with a semiautomatic handgun, abducted Eric Nesbitt, robbed him of the money on his person, drove him to an automated teller machine in his pickup truck where cameras recorded their withdrawal of additional cash, then took him to an isolated location where he was shot eight times and killed.

Justice Stevens relegates the murder to a subordinate clause, puts it in the passive voice, and describes it in just seven words. With no punctuation in Justice Stevens’s description, the reader can zoom past the murder without slowing down.

Justice Scalia, writing in dissent, has the opposite goal: he wants to show that the heinousness of the crime outweighs the defendant’s retardation. Notice how he accomplishes his goal:

After spending the day drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, petitioner Daryl Renard Atkins and a partner in crime drove to a convenience store, intending to rob a customer. Their victim was Eric Nesbitt, an airman from Langley Air Force Base, whom they abducted, drove to a nearby automated teller machine, and forced to withdraw $200. They then drove him to a deserted area, ignoring his pleas to leave him unharmed. According to the co-conspirator, whose testimony the jury evidently credited, Atkins ordered Nesbitt out of the vehicle and, after he had taken only a few steps, shot him one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times in the thorax, chest, abdomen, arms, and legs.

Justice Scalia adds details that Justice Stevens omits, including details about the victim. He puts all the action in active voice, with the defendant as the actor. And when he gets to the actual murder, he renders it in slow motion. He counts each shot.

Neither account is better than the other. Justice Stevens has one purpose; Justice Scalia has another. Each does a good job of describing the murder in a way that suits his purpose. Still, just as counting the shots worked for Bruce Springsteen, it worked for Justice Scalia.