Justice, Mercy, and Caprice: Clemency and the Death Penalty in Ireland


Ian O'Donnell

ISBN13: 9780198798477
Published: November 2017
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Country of Publication: UK
Format: Hardback

Justice, Mercy, and Caprice is a work of criminal justice history that speaks to the gradual emergence of a more humane Irish state. It is a close examination of the decision to grant clemency to men and women sentenced to death between the end of the civil war in 1923 and the abolition of capital punishment in 1990.

Frequently, the decision to deflect the law from its course was an attempt to introduce a measure of justice to a system where the mandatory death sentence for murder caused predictable unfairness and undue harshness.

In some instances the decision to spare a life sprang from merciful motivations. In others it was capricious, depending on factors that should have had no place in the government's decision-making calculus. The custodial careers of those whose lives were spared repay scrutiny. Women tended to serve relatively short periods in prison but were often transferred to a religious institution where their confinement continued, occasionally for life.

Men, by contrast, served longer in prison but were discharged directly to the community. Political offenders were either executed hastily or, when the threat of capital punishment had passed, incarcerated for extravagant periods.

This book addresses issues that are of continuing relevance for countries that employ capital punishment. It will appeal to scholars with an interest in criminal justice history, executive discretion, and death penalty studies, as well as being a useful resource for students of penology.

The revolutionary period
Parameters of inquiry
Avoiding death-eligibility

Classifying Clemency
Who, where, how?
A tripartitie scheme
The 'prerogative'

For and Against Clemency
Discretion and desert
Justice, mercy, caprice

Juries and Judges
Weighing the evidence
Softening the verdict
Donning the black cap
A singular case

Extraordinary Courts
Special Powers Tribunal
The 'terror court'
Astounding legal manoeuvres
Capital murder

Limits to discretion
Public opinion
Arbitrary or principled decisions?

Blurring the Separation of Powers
Interfering judges
A belt of the crozier
Entreaties from His Excellency
Judges again, now expediting release

Undoing Death I
A cruel lottery?
The burden of an unwanted child
Sex and jealousy

Undoing Death II
Dreadful deeds done in turbulent times
Legally sane but strikingly odd



I. Convicted of murder after trial by jury, and spared
II. Convicted of murder after trial by jury, and hanged
III. Sentenced to death by a non-jury court

I. Primary sources
II. Secondary sources