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Imagined Communities and the Death Penalty in Britain, 1930-65

NCJ Number
British Journal of Criminology Volume: 54 Issue: 5 Dated: September 2014 Pages: 908-927
Lizzie Seal
Date Published
September 2014
20 pages
This British study explored a historical example of the interweaving of views of capital punishment and collective identity through an analysis of public responses (letters written to the Home Office) to capital cases in the period 1935-45 compared with the period 1945-65.
In the period 1935-45, letters to the Home Office regarding capital punishment tended to be appeals for leniency on behalf of the condemned person. These letters emphasized the respectability of the prisoner and of his family and neighborhood in which the offender lived. Until the mid-1940s, the letters received by the Home Office from people who knew the prisoner personally nearly always outnumbered those written by unconnected and geographically dispersed strangers to the prisoner. In letters to the Home Office after 1945, however, appeals for leniency by those who knew the condemned man were far outnumbered by letters from those with no personal or geographical relation to the prisoners. The letter writers tended to speak about the state of contemporary society, with attention to how it was changing and whether it was in decline. After World War II, the meaning of capital punishment became more symbolic, as its use became increasingly contested and increasingly rare. The growing opposition to capital punishment as expressed in letters to the Home Office after the war was couched in terms of the moral stature of British justice in the eyes of the world. The primary concern was about the status of British justice in the modern world, where compassion, mercy, human rights and wrongful capital convictions had led many British citizens to view capital punishment as the remnant of a more primitive, cruel, and flawed justice unworthy of Britain. 77 references