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Talking About Prosecutors

Alafair S. Burke

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law


Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, p. 2119, 2010
Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-38

This Article explores the narrative that the scholarly literature on wrongful convictions uses to talk about prosecutors. In the prevailing narrative of the wrongful conviction literature, stories of bad prosecutorial decision making in the cases against Genarlow Wilson, the Jena Six, and three Duke lacrosse players are merely high-profile examples of misconduct that happens every day in America’s prosecutors’ offices and courtrooms. What emerges from the current discourse on wrongful convictions is a language of fault — fault placed on prosecutors who fail to value justice at each turn of the proceedings. Separate from the empirical question of how widespread intentional misconduct is among prosecutors, this Article questions the efficacy of fault-based rhetoric in a world in which prosecutors view wrongful convictions as statistical anomalies, their antagonists as uncommonly bad apples, and themselves as ethical lawyers. The rhetoric of fault is counterproductive because it alienates the very parties who hold the power to initiate many of the most promising reforms of the movement. In contrast, this Article suggests the use of a “no-fault” rhetoric that focuses on structural and cognitive impediments to neutral prosecutorial decision-making. A “no-fault” rhetoric that emphasizes how even ethical prosecutors might inadvertently contribute to wrongful convictions carries the potential to fold prosecutors into the movement while simultaneously pressuring them to initiate self-focused reforms.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 20

Keywords: prosecutors, cognitive bias, ethics, wrongful convictions

JEL Classification: K14, K41

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Date posted: September 24, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Burke, Alafair S., Talking About Prosecutors (2010). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 31, p. 2119, 2010; Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-38. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1681445

Contact Information

Alafair S. Burke (Contact Author)
Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )
121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States
516-463-4243 (Phone)
516-463-4800 (Fax)

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