Descriptions and Assessments of Defendants

  • Douglas W. Maynard


For both prosecution and defense, a prominent factor in the discussion of what should be done with Frank Bryan’s case was their assessment of what kind of person he was. Observers of discretion in the criminal-justice process generally argue that talk about “who a defendant is” is at least as important in the determination of what should be done as are the so-called “facts” of the case.1 This view has to be modified somewhat in light of the argument of the last chapter that many cases are settled routinely, without extensive deliberation of “character” or “facts.” Yet, in cases where lawyers take strong adversary stances, they do consider background factors not legally relevant to the question of whether the defendant is guilty as charged (cf. Newman, 1966: 114–130), including the person’s age, mentality, respectability, and so on.


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  1. 1.
    See other references in Chapter 2, footnote 16.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See the discussion regarding this issue in Sharrock and Turner (1980), who examine a description, telephoned to police, of a car.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Person-descriptions are one instance of a general way in which not only other persons, but the self, (“I’m forty-five”) and nonperson referents (“camisoles are essentially slips”) are described.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The “recipient design” feature of conversation was discussed in Chapter 3, and is described in Sacks et al. (1974). See also Ervin-Tripp (1972), who investigates the way in which address terms are sensitive to the particularities of situations in which they are used.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Chapter 4, example (35), or this chapter, example (9), where Maria Dominguez is compared to a hypothetical “you.”Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Jefferson (1978: 246, fn. 11) notes, It appears that the perturbation occurs at junctures between discrete activity types, and its presence can serve as an index to junctures between discrete activities in otherwise apparently continuous activities like “story preface” and “store entry.” Another phenomenon which may indicate activity junctures is the audible inbreath.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Technically, we can consider the move from “she’s had nothing” to “for twenty years she worked...” as a topic shift. It depends upon the membership of those descriptions in a class of items we could term “defendant’s background” and which would be organized into two subclasses, “things the defendant has not done” and “things the defendant has done.” The topic shift is between subclasses. Cf. Sacks (1968).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Douglas (1967: 281–283) discusses a distinction made in everyday life between “situated” and “substantial” selves, where a substantial self is the reality lying behind situated behaviors. Similarly, Goffman (1974: 293) remarks that a person’s acts are regarded as “in part an expression and outcome of his perduring self, and that this self will be present behind the particular roles he plays at any moment.”Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The contradiction set up between the character of the defendant and the behavior she engaged in is a phenomenon related to the occurrence of “reality disjunctures” in courtroom and other situational discussions of “facts.” And the use of “extraordinary circumstances” to explain the phenomenon is one method by which such disjunctures are resolved and the noncontradictory stature of the world is preserved. See Pollner (1974, 1975).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    n the importance of the courtroom subculture, see Buckle and Buckle (1977: 119–120, 158), Eisenstein and Jacob (1977: 25–28), Heumann (1978: 120, 152), Mather (1979: 3), and Rosett and Cressey (1976: 81).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Speaking Castillian Spanish” is an activity bound to the category “from Spain.” It is in this sense that the second description is occasioned and selected by reference to the first description. It should be noted that these two items together appear to be correcting the prior assertion (cut-off) that the defendant is “Mexican.” See example (7), line 9. The correction may be due to the prestige value of being from Spain as opposed to Mexico, or it may be related to the PD’s later report that the defendant’s case must be settled because she is traveling to Spain.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Bill’s” is the name of a restaurant.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Two utterances produced in overlap present a problem as to which will be implicated in further talk. A means of achieving implicativeness for one’s own utterance is for speaker to continue producing related talk after the other party stops talking or laughing in overlap.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Note that by discussing the issue of the defendant’s looks, the PD abandons the topic of where the defendant works. After this segment, PD2 raises the issue of her eligibility for an alcohol rehabilitation program. See Chapter 5, example (5).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    It is also the case that categorizing a person in a given way sets up the use of subsidiary membership categorization devices. Maynard and Zimmerman (1983) have shown, for example, that in conversations between persons who mutually categorize one another as students, as a way of “getting acquainted,” the use of other devices such as major, year in school, etc., is thereby occasioned.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    The distinction between categorical and assessment descriptions here is made on commonsense grounds, but there is some evidence that such a distinction is an achievement of, and made observable in, identifiable conversational practices. See Maynard (1979: Chapter 3).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas W. Maynard
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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