For nearly eighty years, courts have offered stirring rhetoric about how prosecutors must not strike foul blows in pursuit of convictions. Yet while appellate courts are often quick to condemn prosecutorial trial misconduct, they rarely provide any meaningful remedy. Instead, courts routinely affirm convictions, relying on defense counsel's failure to object or concluding that the misconduct was merely harmless error. Jerome Frank summed up the consequences of this dichotomy best when he noted that the courts' attitude of helpless piety in prosecutorial misconduct cases breeds a deplorably cynical attitude toward the judiciary. Cognitive bias research illuminates the reasons for, and solutions to, the gap between rhetoric and reality in prosecutorial misconduct cases. This article is the first to explore theories of cognition that help explain the frequency of prosecutorial misconduct and the ways that it likely affects jurors and reviewing judges more than they realize. As a result, the article advocates for sweeping changes to the doctrine of harmless error and modest changes to the doctrine of plain error as applied in prosecutorial misconduct cases. These solutions will help courts abandon their attitude of helpless piety, clarify the currently ambiguous law on what behavior constitutes prosecutorial misconduct, encourage defense counsel to raise timely objections to misconduct, and reverse convictions when misconduct may well have affected the outcome of the case but affirm when the misconduct was trivial.
Mitigating Foul Blows, 49 GA. L. REV. 309