My summer PURM experience was devoted to making criminal law accessible to everyday people. I worked primarily on two book projects: one called Hitler in Idaho: An Introduction to American Criminal Law. This book illustrated how 33 legal principles in criminal law have changed over the course of history. We did this by illustrating how a principle was applied one way in a historic case, then contrasted that to a modern case in which it was applied differently. One example would be the principle of attempt culpability – in other words, how close must one come to committing a crime to be convicted of attempting it? We started with a 1916 case in which a group of men was gang-raping a young woman. One man, named H.M. Wooldridge, was “waiting his turn” when the authorities found the scene and arrested the men. Wooldridge was charged with attempted rape but eventually was found not guilty, even though he was just minutes away from raping the woman.
Then we contrasted the 1916 case with a 2012 case in which a mentally unstable man named Blaec Lammers started fantasizing about mass shooting. Eventually he purchased two guns and learned how to shoot them. Soon after he abandons the idea, deciding that it is not worth a lifetime in prison. However, police still find out about the purchase and question him, and eventually he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for attempted first-degree assault and armed criminal action even though he never actively prepared to execute a shooting. The contrast between the cases shows how the standard for criminal attempt has weakened over the course of the 20th century.
For this project, I researched the cases we chose using a variety of sources: the internet, newspaper archives, legal databases, and old-fashion books. Then I wrote the historic narrative of the case, explaining who was involved, what they did, and what the legal outcome was. Then I edited all of the narratives written by myself and other research assistants before they were reviewed by Professor Robinson.
The second project was Crimes That Shaped our World, which aims to show how particular crimes led to changes in the American criminal code. For example, when 13-year-old Cari Lightner was killed in 1980 by a drunk driver, the driver got off with just two years in prison. This outraged her mother, who began a nationwide campaign against drunk driving that eventually led to a host of tough drunk driving laws. This pattern – tragedy, outrage, reform – can explain much of our present-day legal framework. For this project, I did an in-depth edit of each chapter of the book before it was compiled and sent to the publisher.
These projects taught me a lot about criminal law and the complicated relationship between law and the society in which it is developed and applied. I also honed my writing and editing skills, and explored whether I would like to pursue law in my future