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Racialised mercy: reprieving black and minority ethnic prisoners in twentieth-century England and Wales

posted on 2023-06-09, 15:02 authored by Lizzie SealLizzie Seal, Alexa NealeAlexa Neale
As part of a wider project exploring all cases of black and minority ethnic people sentenced to death in England and Wales in the 20thC, this paper analyses surprising examples of cases in which race was given as a reason to respite a capital sentence and allow a defendant to serve a term of imprisonment instead of being hanged for murder. These cases stand in sharp contrast to the apparent over-representation of black and minority ethnic people amongst those hanged. BME individuals accounted for 5% of executions 1900-65, despite comprising less than 1% of the population. The reasons offered for mercy were situated in the context of contemporary racist discourses, such as infantilisation. For example, a ?simple African? could not be held fully accountable for his lack of ability to control his passions. Drawing on a range of cases, this paper identifies the actors and reasons behind such discourses, analysing the apparent utility of such reasons. It examines the racialised justifications for reprieve advanced by the Defence, jury, judge, petitioners, press, and Home Office and pays attention to where these overlapped and where they differed.


Race, Racialisation and the Death Penalty in England and Wales, 1900-65; G2062; LEVERHULME TRUST; RPG-2016-352


Publication status

  • Published

Presentation Type

  • paper

Event name

British Crime Historians Symposium

Event location

Edge Hill University

Event type


Event date

31 August - 1 September 2018

Department affiliated with

  • Sociology and Criminology Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Sussex Rights and Justice Research Centre Publications
  • Crime Research Centre Publications

Full text available

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Peer reviewed?

  • No

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