Violated trust: Conceptualizing prosecutorial misconduct

Heather Schoenfeld

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In the past decade, investigations into wrongful convictions have uncovered multiple incidents of prosecutorial misconduct during trial. This article proposes a theoretical explanation of prosecutorial misconduct with the goal of prompting further research. The theory builds from the characterization of prosecutors as agents of trust and prosecutorial misconduct as a violation of the norms of trust. Utilizing theories of occupational crime, the theory explains how the structure of the trust relationship creates motivation and opportunities for misconduct. Motivation to engage in misconduct stems from prosecutors' definitions of success, which are influenced by the reward structure and the availability of techniques of neutralization. Opportunities for misconduct arise because of the organization of the prosecutorial role and weak sanctions for prosecutors' misbehavior. Given the motivation and opportunity, prosecutors' decision to engage in misconduct depends on their evaluation of existing opportunities, which is influenced by their workplace subculture and their values and beliefs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)250-271
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Criminal procedure
  • Prosecution
  • Theory
  • White-collar crime

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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