The Contradictions of Reform: Prosecuting Infant Murder in the Nineteenth-Century U.S.

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Law and History Review






“The Contradictions of Reform” analyses the complications of reform of legislation regulating punishment for women convicted of infanticide in Connecticut between 1790 and 1860, within the context of broader social, cultural, and legal understandings of the crime within the US. These changes are investigated through a close reading of petitions for clemency to Connecticut's General Assembly in which women convicted of the crime petitioned the state legislature seeking reduced sentences. The article argues that although the nineteenth century opened with legislation that promised death to all women convicted of infanticide, in practice courts and juries never imposed the penalty. Instead, juries proved reluctant to convict and/or death sentences were not imposed, even if juries found women guilty. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Connecticut Assembly reformed existing infanticide law in response to a number of social debates about the merits of the death penalty, particularly for women. The article argues, however, that these reforms counter-intuitively resulted in less favorable outcomes for those convicted of the crime, as they found themselves facing lengthy prison sentences. Such an outcome was unlikely in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The article, therefore, demonstrates, the “contradictions of reform.”


Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society for Legal History