Jena OsmanWORKING NOTES by Jena Osman

I'm fascinated by Supreme Court transcripts. What’s of particular interest to me is how so often "justice" comes down to issues of grammar. For a while now I’ve been receiving summaries (via email) of Supreme Court decisions through the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School. In the work below, I’ve chosen cases where language rules obviously held the key to some of the decision making. I then asserted my own version of the rule on the summary itself. I’ve included an excerpt from the summary followed by the results of my procedures.

From: Court Reports


Summary Excerpt:
Argued December 7, 1998 -- Decided March 20, 1999

A drug distributor hired respondent and others to find a New York drug dealer who stole cocaine from him during a Texas drug transaction and to hold captive the middleman in the transaction, Ephrain Avendano, during the search. The group drove from Texas to New Jersey to New York to Maryland, taking Avendano with them. Respondent took possession of a revolver in Maryland and threatened to kill Avendano. Avendano eventually escaped and called police, who arrested respondent and the others. Respondent was charged in a New Jersey District Court with, inter alia, using and carrying a firearm in relation to Avendano’s kidnapping, in violation of 18 U.S.C. sect. 924(c)(1). He moved to dismiss that count, arguing that venue was proper only in Maryland, the only place where the Government had proved he had actually used a gun. The court denied the motion, and respondent was convicted of the sect. 923(c)(1) offense. The Third Circuit reversed. After applying what it called the "verb test," it determined that venue was proper only in the district where a defendant actually uses or carries a firearm.

Procedure: The Verb Test
NITE SATES (MORE Venn diagrams)

Chatter the embers, you must cut off the arc. Your action, Ephrain Avendano, is like a knock out from the inside of the arc. You fell down through the air of Texas   New Jersey   New York   Maryland, into a pond; a session held in the mind.

Ill Avendano. Avendano in the ally eluding memory. A call. New Jersey District Court whines, hums and whistles a fire. You relocate, don’t realize your hat is still on; the hat disintegrates (morally). Government ads target and reckon use. You injure your own feelings, extinguish them, dent and declare guilty. Concealed Circuits familiarize then ravage the "verb test," invalidate all use of spoken or written fires.

To carry on:  Venn roses whine, hum and whistle expressing ire. Ions are neglected. You curse, curt, and we reckon dents. Situated off (you are off) a hen throws dice and appears cured. The United States is tough; your Third Circuit presents false information. You declare that verbs deter us from action; you are off. Your Court as ever a verb and so judges the illusion that men are required to injure themselves. Off in spite of the big bed you assume to exist during tins to din duct men. Violently torn into pieces, whine, hum and whistle -- the ads are weeping; you're neglecting your kid. A rime rests with torso vertical, tin arts violently torn into pieces. Local venn ropes encircle your car (now that's art) a target you neglected. The United States chatters. Answer chatter, hat on, advance your pace. Here you mimic a coin with absurd results. Then mimic unit rime, "hi, I do no mat hat" into a pond. You employ Maryland and curse "during and in relation to" the kid's urgent pleas. Your kid, "hi," he's off and suffers. As you walk back and forth (there's art to walking), venn props present false rime. An offense to adore.



Summary Excerpt:
Argued December 8, 1997 -- Decided March 9, 1998

Anthony Bell confessed to the police that he, petitioner Gray, and another man participated in the beating that caused Stacy Williams' death. After the third man died, a Maryland grand jury indicted Bell and Gray for murder, and the State tried them jointly. When the trial judge permitted the State to introduce a redacted version of Bell's confession, the detective who read it to the jury said "deleted" or "deletion" whenever the name of Gray or the third participant appeared. Immediately after that reading, however, the detective answered affirmatively when the prosecutor asked, "after [Bell] gave you that information, you subsequently were able to arrest...Gray; is that correct?" The State also introduced a written copy of the confession with the two names omitted, leaving in their place blanks separated by commas. The judge instructed the jury that the confession could be used as evidence only against Bell, not Gray. The jury convicted both defendants.

Procedure: Erasing Gray (Deletion as Protection)

Anthony Bell confessed to the police thXt he, petitioneX [X] Xnd XnotheX mXn pXXticipXted in the beXtinX thXt cXused Stacy Williams’ deXth. XfteX the thiXd mXn died, X Maryland XXXnd juXX indicted Belland [X] foX muXdeX, Xnd the State tXied them jointlX. When the tXiXl judXe peXmitted the State to intXoduce X XedXcted veXsion of Bell’s confession, the detective who Xead it to the juXX sXid "deleted" oX "deletion" wheneveX the nXme of [X] oX the thiXd pXXticipXnt XppeXXed. ImmediXtelX XfteX thXt XeXdinX, howeveX, the detective XnsweXed XffiXmXtivelX when the pXosecutoX Xsked, "after [Bell] gave you that information, you subsequently were able to arrest...[X]; is that correct?" The State Xlso intXoduced X wXitten copX of the confession with the two nXmes omitted, leXvinX in theiX plXce blXnks sepXXXted by commXs. The judXe instXucted the juXX thXt the confession could be used Xs evidence onlX XgXinst Bell, not [X]. The juXX convicted both defendXnts. Maryland’s inteXmediXte XppellXte couXt held thXt Bruton v. United States, pXohibited use of the confession Xnd set Xside [X’s] conviction. Maryland’s hiXhest couXt disXXXeed Xnd XeinstXted thXt conviction.

shorthand version:
Anthony Bell confessed to the police x he, x [X] x x x x in the x x x Stacy Williams’ x. X the x x died x Maryland x x indicted Bell x [X] x x, x the State x them x. When the x x x the State to x x x x of Bell’s confession, the detective who x it to x x x "deleted" x "deletion" x the x of [X] x the x x x. X x x x, x, the detective x x when the x x "after Bell gave you that information, you subsequently were able to arrest...[X]; is that correct?" The State x x x x x of the confession with the two x omitted, x in x x x x x x. The x x the x x the confession could be used x evidence x Bell, not [X]. The x convicted both x. Maryland’s x x x held x Bruton v. United States, x use of the confession x set x [X's] conviction. Maryland’s x x x x x x conviction.

literary addendum:

Emily Dickinson wrote

Step lightly on
This narrow spot --
The broadest Land
That grows
Is not so Ample
As the Breast
These Emerald
Seams enclose

Step lofty, for
This name be told
As far as Cannon
Or Flag subsist
Or Fame export
Her deathless

But in the fascicle version, this poem appears as a field of X's, due to how Dickinson chose to cross her T's and F's:



S X e p   l i g h x l y   on

X his   n a r r o w   S p o x --

X h e   b r o a d e s x   X a n d

T h a t   g  r o w s

I s  n o X   s o   a m p l e

A s   X h e   B r e a s x

X h e s e   E m e r a l d

S e a m s   e n c l o s e .


S X e p   l o f t y ,   f o r

X h i s   n a m e   b e   xold

A s   f a r   a s   C a nnon

D w e l l

O r   X l a g   S u b s i s X

O r   X a m e   E x p o r X

H e r      d e a x h l e s s

S y l l a    b l e



The X's are stitches in the picture of the poem. Letters are actually what sew the "seam," and what they enclose is the dead body in its emerald "spot." What is equally interesting is the apparent discarding of the dash. Thus, the poem has a squarer look to it -- a plain, a plot, a field. The more defined/geometric the space, the more it resembles a space enclosed. The dashes signify an opening, but this poem has a concrete and pictorial surface, patched in places by the letter "X". There's a confession that links a man's name to a body beneath a field of X's. The man attempts to remove his name from the penalty box. He wants to become the X, the blank spot. The court eventually agrees to this, but the mark is still there. The X is both an absence and a presence.



(back to top)

BIO: Jena Osman is the co-editor of Chain magazine (see up dates section) along with Juliana Spahr. Her book The Character was recently published by Beacon Press. She is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University.

new writing

table of contents