Sitting behind her strikingly barren desk, with the bright, mid-winter sunlight breaking through the trees and streaming through her office windows, Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta recounts the case of nine-year-old Cameron Kocher. As she speaks her small, compact frame remains nearly motionless, betraying no emotion. But her eyes tell the story, portraying the internal mix-up of sadness, passion and nerdy intensity that she feels about the topic. Duncan may not wear her heart on her sleeve, but if you pay attention it’s not hard to find.
In March 1989, on a cold, snowy day in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, Kocher fatally shot a seven-year-old playmate with a high-powered hunting rifle. He had been playing video games with the girl at her house when she told him that she was better at the game than he. Soon, the girl went outside to ride snowmobiles with other friends and Kocher, angry that his parents wouldn’t let him join them, retrieved the rifle from his father’s gun cabinet, loaded it and pointed it out the window of his home. Then, as the girl rode with a friend on a snowmobile, Kocher shot her in the back.
Minutes later, as the girl lay dying in her living room, Kocher returned to the girl’s house telling another playmate, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad.”
As Kocher’s case progressed through the courts, many took the quote, coupled with the shooting, as evidence of a cold, remorseless child. Uttering that sentence would have severe repercussions for Kocher, beginning with the question of whether he would be treated as an adult by the courts.
In 2002, Duncan published a lengthy article for the Columbia Law Review that explored how expectations of displays of remorse affect how children are treated in the juvenile justice system, particularly in adjudication and sentencing. Duncan, who also holds a doctorate in political science, applied elements of psychology, sociology and literature to several case studies in the article.