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Capital Punishment Symposium

Symposium: Historical Perspectives on Capital Punishment

Thursday, 6th September 2018

Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin

The symposium will bring together new historical research and critical perspectives on the death penalty, crossing jurisdictions to examine its operation in England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. It will take place in parallel with the North-South Criminology Conference.

Symposium sessions will be chaired by Dr Catherine Cox, Associate Professor in the School of History, University College Dublin, and Dr Mary Rogan, Associate Professor in the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin.

The event will be followed by a wine reception, and the launch of Professor Ian O’Donnell’s recent book Justice, Mercy, and Caprice: Clemency and the Death Penalty in Ireland (OUP, 2017). The book will be launched by Thomas O’Malley BL, Law Reform Commissioner.

The event is kindly funded by the College of Social Sciences and Law, the Sutherland School of Law, and UCD’s Legal History Group.

Attendance is free but guests are asked to RSVP to Lynsey.Black@ucd.ie no later than Monday September 3rd

‌Speakers' Papers

Dr Rachel Bennett, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Warwick

‘An offence formerly unknown in this part of the United Kingdom: Robbery and the death penalty in early nineteenth-century Scotland’
When sentencing Thomas Kelly and Henry O’Neil to death for the crime of robbery, one of the judges in their case stated that the court were determined, by the most prompt and vigorous administration of justice, to punish offences of this nature that had been committed to an extent “unknown formerly in this part of the United Kingdom.” He further admonished that their commission of three different robberies upon the public highways was “subversive of the essential principles of social union, good order and harmony” and thus the court had been induced to order that their execution would take place at the scene of the last robbery. The first third of the nineteenth century was a period of debate, discussion and change in the use of the gallows across much of Britain. While the overall figures remained higher in England, the number of capital convictions in Scotland reached unprecedented levels in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century and the number of executions doubled compared to the previous decade. In turn, several Scottish newspapers offered greater volumes of opinions expressing the need for exemplary punishment in the face of what were believed to be endemic levels of crime in some areas, notably the country’s central belt. Despite the increasing scrutiny of the efficacy of the scaffold, the crime of robbery was held up as an offence that required a marked response in the form of the death penalty. The robbery cases brought before the criminal courts were heavily reported upon, with the executions of those capitally convicted justified as being indispensable in correcting, what one judge referred to as, “the loose manners of the time.” In turn, it was believed to be necessary to execute several offenders at the scene of their crimes to ensure that justice was being seen to be done.


Dr John Walliss, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Science, Liverpool Hope University

“Every page of our statute book smelt of blood”: Current Research on the Bloody Code
In this paper, I will summarise recent work on the so-called ‘Bloody Code’ of the long eighteenth century. The historiography of the Bloody Code was dominated during the 1970s and 1980s by the debate between Marxist historians and others over the extent to which capital punishment operated during this period as a tool of the ruling elite to protect property interests. However, in recent years, several historians have begun to ask different questions. In this paper, I will discuss work on what has been termed the ‘geography of the bloody code’; that is, the often stark differences between how the capital code was administered at the centre and on the periphery. In particular, I will focus on my recent book, The Bloody Code in England and Wales, 1760-1830 (Palgrave, 2018) to explore the differing patterns of sentences of death and executions across England and Wales during the period.

Dr Lynsey Black, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Law, University College Dublin

Murder, Capital Punishment, and the Irish in Scotland, 1864 to 1914
Throughout the nineteenth-century, significant numbers of Irish persons emigrated to Scotland, crossing the sea to take advantage of the greater employment opportunities in the industrialised central belt from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By 1851, 18 per cent of Glasgow’s population was Irish-born, while in some areas over half the population was Irish-born. These Irish immigrants lived their lives under the shadow of the popular stereotype of the Irish as unruly and prone to violence. Scholars such as Peter King and Carolyn Conley have noted that the Irish duly became an ‘out group’ in Scotland during this period. This paper explores the cases of Irish people sentenced to death for murder in Scotland from 1864 to 1914. It examines the role of nationality in the profile of persons sentenced to death, exploring the high number of Irish persons who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death during this period. Delving into the circumstances of these cases the paper explores how, in the context of the Irish as an ‘out group’, cases of murder were processed through the courts, perceived by the public, and represented in the press. Drawing on archival court materials and contemporaneous press reporting, the paper examines issues such as the prevalence of sectarian tensions, and the Catholic Irish as ‘other’.

Rian Sutton, Doctoral Candidate, School of History, University of Edinburgh

A ‘matter for the consideration of the Executive alone’: Narratives of Mercy in the Cases of Women Sentenced to Death in New York City and London, 1880-1914
This paper will examine the exercise of mercy in cases of women sentenced to death in New York City and London between 1880 and 1914. It will consider the ways in which the process of executive justice can be seen as a continuation of the trial, albeit one that had been stripped of the substantive rules and regulations that governed formal trial proceedings. Trials are often viewed as a space where verdicts are reached through a negotiation between the formal law and popular conceptions of right and wrong (the unwritten law). Although principles of the unwritten law were used in trial proceedings and undoubtedly influenced jury decision-making, they are not relevant, strictly speaking, for determining guilt or innocence and so could not be deployed as valid legal arguments. However, the discretion of the Governor or the Home Secretary was not subject to the same restrictions. As such, narratives which were disallowed, never introduced, or failed to carry weight during the trial, could nevertheless still be considered in the process of executive justice. This paper will explore these narratives and the various actors that put them to use. Particular attention will be paid to the role played by the public through petitions for clemency and letters to the Governor or Home Secretary and the press. It will also explore the ways in which clemency campaigns often extended beyond the immediate issue of the fate of the condemned to discuss broader social issues such as legal reform and women’s right to vote.

Dr Lizzie Seal, Reader in Criminology, Sussex Rights and Justice Centre, University of Sussex

Lived Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) People Sentenced to Death in England and Wales, 1900-65
This paper will draw on findings from a Leverhulme-funded research project that examines the cases of all 58 black and minority ethnic individuals (all men) sentenced to death in the twentieth century in England and Wales. BME individuals were over-represented in terms of executions: they accounted for 4.6 per cent of civilian executions in this period, while accounting for only 0.3 per cent of the population in 1950. Whereas white men were reprieved at a rate of 40 per cent, BME men were only reprieved at a rate of 25 per cent. This particular paper will explore the lived experiences of BME men sentenced to death, rather than focusing on the workings and discourses of the criminal justice system. To do so, it will draw on sources such as witness statements, depositions, court testimonies, petitions and, where available, letters that provide a means of contextualising both the men’s wider lives and their experiences of being tried for murder and sentenced to death. The paper will aim to provide a social historical account of the lives of BME men sentenced to death in England and Wales between 1900 and 1965, and the ways in which they navigated the criminal justice system. Witness statements reveal much about the occupations and interpersonal lives of the people involved in cases of murder. Petitions for clemency enable analysis of how condemned individuals sought to influence how their actions and character were perceived by authorities, including how they incorporated discourses of justice in order to do this.

Professor Ian O’Donnell, School of Law, University College Dublin

An Interfering Judge, a Biddable Executive, and an Unbroken Neck
Cahir Davitt (1894-1986) was a judge who, by his own admission, ‘was not in favour of executing anyone if it could be avoided.’ His aversion to capital punishment first came to light during the civil war when, as Judge-Advocate General to the national army, he used a variety of legal ruses to persuade the Army Council not to execute death sentences imposed by military courts. He was appointed a judge of the High Court in 1945 and presided over five murder trials where a guilty verdict was returned and he was required to impose the mandatory sentence of capital punishment. In one of these cases (an in another where he was not the sentencing judge) he attended a cabinet meeting and argued, successfully, that the law should be deflected from its course. These interventions were kept secret at the time. They will be analysed in the context of the separation of powers doctrine and the process of executive clemency.

Dr Coleman A Dennehy, UCD Humanities Institute

Execution in Seventeenth-century Dublin: Bishops, Sodomites, and Theocratic Fanatics
This paper is a comparative consideration of three executions in seventeenth-century Dublin. Bishop Conor O’Devany, Roman Catholic bishop of Down & Connor, was executed for treason in Spring 1612. Bishop John Atherton, Church of Ireland bishop of Waterford & Lismore, was executed for buggery according to the recent act of parliament (1635) in November 1640. Finally, the Presbyterian reverend William Lecky was executed with his co-conspirators for treason over the Summer of 1663. All three were church-men, but only Atherton was of the legal, established church.
Studying their dispatch in a comparative fashion will give an interesting insight into public opinion and reaction when the state goes to the point of killing religious men and community leaders. As it is well known, it was desirable from the point of view of the state that the condemned man would acknowledge his wrong, beg forgiveness of the king and God, and go to a good death. However, Ireland was a country deeply divided along sectarian lines, with ethnic and linguistic differences present also. Whereas in a homogeneous society all members might well have viewed traitors with equal revulsion, in a divided kingdom such as seventeenth-century Ireland was, the various communities would certainly take sides.
This paper will consider the efforts by the state to use executions to proclaim its power and perform justice in a dignified manner, and whether the crowd was prepared to acquiesce in this performative aspect of the theatre of government. It will also consider the behaviour of the condemned man and what role his played in his gruesome end.

UCD Sutherland School of Law

University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.