Working paper

The Deterrent Effect of the Death Penalty? Evidence from British Commutations During World War I

Daniel L. Chen


During World War I, the British military condemned over 3,000 soldiers to death, but only executed 12% of them; the others received commuted sentences. Many historians believe that the military command confirmed or commuted sentences for reasons unrelated to the circumstances of a particular case and that the application of the death penalty was essentially a random, “pitiless lottery.” Using a dataset on all capital cases during World War I, I statistically investigate this claim and find that the data are consistent with an essentially random process. Using this result, I exploit variation in commutations and executions within military units to identify the deterrent effect of executions, with deterrence measured by the elapsed time within a unit between the resolution of a death sentence (i.e., a commutation or execution) and subsequent absences within that unit. Absences are measured via handwritten trial records and “wanted” lists prepared by British military police units searching for deserters and preserved in war diaries and police gazettes. I find some limited evidence that executing deserters deterred absences, while executing Irish soldiers, regardless of the crime, spurred absences, particularly Irish absences. I present a model where perceived legitimacy of authority affects why people obey the law.


Compliance; Legitimacy; Deterrence;

JEL codes

  • K14: Criminal Law
  • K42: Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law
  • N44: Europe: 1913–
  • P48: Political Economy • Legal Institutions • Property Rights • Natural Resources • Energy • Environment • Regional Studies

See also

Published in

TSE Working Paper, n. 16-706, September 2016