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In many court cases, the judge's or jury's task lies in categorizing someone's actions.
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In many court cases, the judge's or jury's task lies in categorizing

someone's actions. A jury might need to decide, for example, whether a defendant's actions fall into the category of "sexual harassment." Or, as a different example, a jury might be certain that the defendant caused someone's death, but they still need to decide whether the crime should be categorized as "first-degree murder" or "second degree," a categorization with large implications for the likely punishment. To help with this categorization, laws define each crime in precise terms. For example, there is a careful definition of "robbery," a clear definition of "trespassing" or "first-degree murder," and so on. Even with these definitions, though, the courts regularly encounter ambiguous cases, raising questions about whether the person's actions satisfy the definition of the crime the person is charged with. But we also need to ask: How do the courts proceed when they encounter one of these ambiguous cases? We've seen that people have prototypes in mind for their various concepts, and so, in day-to-day life, they often assess a new case by asking how closely it resembles that prototype. It turns out that jurors do the same in making legal judgments, and so they're more likely to convict someone if the trial facts fit with their prototype for the crime—if the facts fit the jurors' idea of, say, a "typical bank robbery" or a "typical hit-and-run violation." Put differently, a "typical" crime with weak evidence is more likely to lead to a conviction than an unusual crime with similarly weak evidence. Of course, this is legally nonsensical: Jury decisions should depend on the quantity and quality of the evidence, and on the legal definition of the crime. The jurors' ideas about what's typical for that crime should play no role at all, especially when we acknowledge that these ideas are shaped more by TV crime shows than by actual crime statistics. Nonetheless, the prototypes do influence the jury, and so legal judgments (like concept use in general) are plainly shaped by typicality. Moreover, concept users often seem to have a "theory" in mind about why a concept is as it is, and they use the theory in reasoning about the concept. The chapter used the example of someone jumping into a pool fully clothed. You're likely to categorize this person as a "drunk," not because the person fits your definition for being drunk or even fits your prototype, but because you have a set of beliefs about how drunks are likely to act. Based on those beliefs (i.e., based on your "theory"), you decide that drunkenness is the most plausible explanation for the behavior you just observed, and you categorize accordingly. Similar categorization strategies are evident in the courtroom. Consider the crime of stalking. This crime is difficult to define in a crisp way; in fact, it's defined in different ways in different states. Often, though, the definition includes the idea that the stalker intended to force some sort of relationship with the victim, perhaps a relationship involving intimacy or a relationship in which the victim feels fear. Often, however, there's no direct evidence of this intention, so the jury needs to infer the intention either from the defendant's behaviors or from the context. In making these inferences, jurors rely on their "theory" of stalking—their beliefs about how and why one individual might stalk another. This helps us understand why juries are more likely to convict someone of stalking if, for example, the defendant was a former intimate of the person being "stalked." Apparently, jurors are guided by their ideas about how former (but now rejected) lovers behave, even if these ideas have nothing to do with the legal definition of stalking. How should we think about these points? On one side, we want jurors to be guided by the law, and not by their intuitions about the crime at issue in a trial. On the other side, the U.S. criminal justice system relies on the good sense and good judgment of juries—so plainly we want jurors to use their judgment. How best to balance these points isn't clear, but the tension between these points might be inevitable, given what we know about human concepts and human categorization.




1) In addition to determining what a defendant did and did not do, what other task(s) related to categorization must jurors perform?
2) Why might jurors be more likely to convict someone if the evidence presented at trial resembled their prototype for the crime? How might a defense or prosecution lawyer take advantage of the ways in which jurors tend to categorize?
3) How might the experience of a juror influence their behavior? Would it matter if they had no experience with the law or if they had been a juror in a similar trial? What if they had been to law school?
4) Try to come up with a definition for the crime of stalking. Why are definitions in general an inadequate way to describe how we reason using concepts and categories?


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