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Published in: Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice, Volume 6, Number 2, 2010.


Prosecutorial misconduct in the form of improper closing argument has been identified as a leading cause of unfairness in capital trials. The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that arguments with the potential to unduly influence the jury should be clarified by a specific judicial instruction. The present study investigated the effectiveness of varying instructions on sentence recommendations and perceptions of improper prosecutor argument. Results indicated that the inclusion of a specific, cautionary instruction led to significantly less death penalty recommendations compared to a brief, general instruction. In addition, instructions minimized the importance of the misconduct statements on participants’ sentence recommendations. Findings provide support for the validity of judicial instructions as a legal safeguard against prosecutorial misconduct in capital sentencing.