“Just” can mean moral, righteous, legitimate, according with the principles of justice: “Then conquer we must When our cause it is just,” one of the “other” verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” asserts (I’m very fond of the “when” in that line, and really resent hearing some people sing “for” instead, implying that our cause is always and of course just and therefore our victory is certain, whereas the actual line suggests that in those cases when our cause is just, we must conquer—but that’s all irrelevant here! so back we go…). It can mean this as an adjective, so that in the student phrase it describes homicidal rage as legitimate.
“Just” can also mean merely, simply, only: “It was just my imagination,” “She was just seventeen.” It can mean this as an adverb, so that the student phrase is referring to “merely” homicidal rage, suggesting that homicidal rage is a trivial thing.
I’m afraid the full sentence makes clear that the student meant the latter:
“Whether or not the intent was self-defense or just homicidal rage, the United States judicial system will try to give fair trials.”
In this sentence self-defense is a far worse intent than homicidal rage.
And that’s not the only problem here. We have the extraneous “or not”: since the sentence goes on to give an alternative to self-defense, the writer need not supply another alternative (not). In fact the presence of the “not” complicates the actual alternatives: now we have “whether the intent was self-defense or homicidal rage, or was not self-defense or homicidal rage.” Does that mean we have to look for additional possible intents if we are to understand the sentence’s own intention?
I suspect that behind this particular error lurks a well-intentioned teacher. I too try to give my students patterns or rules-of-thumb or generalized prohibitions where I see frequent problems and believe that a “rules” explanation won’t work for the students: for example, rather than go through the grammatical principles and identities that govern the use of “due to,” I advise “If you never write ‘due to’ you’ll never use it wrong.” I got so tired of sloppy use of “different than” instead of the correct-and-still-preferred “different from” (U.S. usage) that I had a whole class chant “different from, different from, different from”—and then got a paper written by a careful student wherein this sentence proudly sat: “She adored him, but what he felt for her was completely different from.” This and similar instances of professorial inability to imagine how wrong a simple directive can go lead me to imagine a teacher somewhere in this student’s past trying to break a habit of writing things like “I don’t know whether it’s going to rain” by saying “If you have no alternative, you have to say ‘if’; only if you do provide an alternative, or want to imply an alternative, say ‘whether.’ So it’s “whether or!’ ‘whether or!”” If that phantom teacher did exist, I can imagine my student writing “Whether or” to begin this sentence, and then hearing Phantom Teacher in his mind and faithfully adding a “not,” oblivious to the alternative he already plans to provide later in the sentence.
Then we have the fuzzy referent for “the intent.” Perhaps it’s time to tell students not to begin sentences with anything other than the main subject-verb cluster: even though their writing would become impossibly boring, at least the reader would no longer be confronted with these detached or disassociated introductory elements. If only he had added “the killer’s” before “intent,” I wouldn’t have been left pondering the possible relationship between judicial system and homicidal rage. The student has not actually made a grammatical link between the two, but he has left me no other possibility for a link. This isn’t Latin we’re writing in, after all: we don’t have the ablative absolute, that construction that allowed Julius Caesar to write “the enemy being slaughtered, Caesar had a nap” (or some such thing) without implying that J.C. had slaughtered the entire enemy all by himself. Caesar wouldn’t have fallen so gently asleep had the enemy not been slaughtered, but although the two events or conditions are linked, they are not linked by the accomplishing agent. Well, we don’t have that structure in English, so I’m left wondering what the judicial system, or the judicial system’s trying to give fair trials, has to do with the motives offered in the introductory adverbial clause.
Last is the double use of “try.” I have had students tell me they knew they were using the same word in two different ways in the same sentence but they couldn’t think of any other way to say what they meant. This may be so. But if it is, then they should be doing some vocabulary-building, or at least reading their sentences over after having written them. Since “try” can mean “attempt” or “put on trial,” the doubling is particularly confusing here—the judicial system does try cases, so the innocent reader (and doesn’t THAT little dual-purpose adjective complicate matters in this legal sentence!) may expect a direct object after “try” rather than the infinitive “to give” that actually is the object of the verb. So on first reading the expectation might be (and in fact might more reasonably be, for the sake of relating that adverbial clause) “Whether the intent was self-defense or homicidal rage, the United States judicial system will try the case.” But no: they’re going to try to give trials. The reader has to back up and re-read in order to accommodate “trials” by re-defining “try.”
Well, I’m glad my student believes in the good faith of the U.S. judicial system: courts make the effort to be fair to both self-defenders and homicidal maniacs. Their open-mindedness seems to extend even to the question of which motive is the more culpable, despite the existence of a criminal code that already has done that. While the statement may not go on to observe that we live in a great country, it does imply that we live in a well-meaning one.