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Law Professor William Stuntz Dies at Age 52

By Caroline M. McKay, Crimson Staff Writer

When Harvard Law School Professor William J. Stuntz laughed, he howled. His entire body—a small frame, smaller even when in his last years when he battled cancer—convulsed.

“I do miss his laugh,” said David A. Skeel, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and former student of Stuntz’s. “There was just a joy in it. He took great pleasure in laughing.”

After a three-year battle with stage-four colon cancer, Stuntz died in his home in Belmont, Mass., on March 15. He was 52 years old.

For three decades, Stuntz studied and taught criminal justice and procedure. Throughout his career, he asserted that the United States imprisons too many of its citizens—especially the poor and minorities—and discussed the appropriate role of faith and mercy in the justice and penal systems.

After teaching at the University of Virginia Law School, his alma mater, Stuntz came to teach at HLS in 1999.

Born in Washington on July 3, 1958, Stuntz grew up in Annapolis, Md. He graduated from the College of William and Mary, and following law school, he clerked for Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.

An evangelical Christian, Stuntz established for himself a unique niche at HLS as a religious leader and top legal scholar.

His colleagues remember him for always bringing fresh ideas to the table, on subjects ranging from war to religion.

“There is a small number of public intellectuals in our historical moment who can see things in a fresh and counterintuitive way, and Bill was one of them,” Skeel said.

Skeel said that after watching Stuntz maneuver through 10 years of chronic pain and disease with “astonishing grace,” he will remember Stuntz for his humble nature.

He recalled a night on campus that epitomized Stuntz’s selflessness.

“We crossed paths with the night janitor, and Bill knew exactly who he was, stopped, addressed the janitor by name, and talked about their families and [their health],” Skeel said.

“Bill for me didn’t just treat colleagues as if they were special—he treated everyone like they were special,” Skeel added.

Katheryn E. Klimko, a third year student at the Law School and member of the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship, met Stuntz at Park Street Church, which they both attended, and later took two of his classes. She would form a close relationship with the professor, who advised her while she was writing a paper on the Eighth Amendment.

She said that when she remembers Stuntz, she pictures him mid-laugh.

“He was an extremely joyful person, which must have been so difficult with what he was dealing with,” she said.

Klimko said that Stuntz never showed his pain while he was teaching, instead making students laugh and occasionally rewarding a good point with what his students knew was his highest compliment—a pause, and then a slow, “Yeah. That’s nice.”

Klimko said Stuntz made himself available to his students even through his treatment—welcoming them into his office, where he worked with the lights out and amidst stacks of papers.

J. Mark Ramseyer, a Law School professor who started at HLS roughly the same time as Stuntz, said that teaching and helping students was Stuntz’s own kind of medicine.

“Having to prepare for class and having the opportunity to work with students helped him deal with the pain,” Ramseyer said. “He responded by focusing on other people.”

Klimko said the cultural diversity at Stuntz’s religious funeral was indicative of his accepting and tolerant understanding of Christianity.

“My dad went out of his way to build relationships with other world views and listen to them with an open mind,” said Stuntz’s son Samuel D. Stuntz ’10.

“He was a combination of being wonderfully helpful—selflessly helpful—and always being modest about it,” Ramseyer said.

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at carolinemckay@college.harvard.edu.

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ReligionHarvard Law SchoolReligious GroupsObituary