September 17, 2003
Recent Research for
Smith, V. L. (1991). Prototypes in the courtroom: Lay representations of
legal concepts. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 61(6), 857-872.
Judges accept and rely on many assumptions about the
legal process that are falsified by solid and credible scientific research.
To the extent that these mistaken assumptions may affect the accuracy of the
decisions made, they are a source of error and potential injustice.
This research study exposes one such potential error.
A jury's task is to integrate the evidence presented
in a trial with the criteria defined by the law to reach a legally
appropriate verdict. The assumption is that jurors do not know the
relevant law. This is then supposed to be remedied by the judge giving
instruction in the law at the end of the trial. This series of studies
shows that the assumption of ignorance of the law is correct but the remedy
does not work. The judicial instruction in the law is ignored.
Instead, juries reach their decisions based on their prior perceptions of
the crime, the story developed during the trial, and pre-existing categories
rather than the law. Although this report was published in 1991,
nothing has been done to change or alter the judicial instructions to make
them more relevant and more effective in guiding the decision making
process. There are also a number of other research reports that show
judicial instructions have little or no effect on the decisions of juries.