Criminal Law

By Peter Woodhouse


50 years since Ronald Ryan hanged – time to end the death penalty for good?

I am against the death penalty.  I don’t care what the person has been charged with, I don’t agree with it.  Most lawyers probably agree with me.  I reckon most Australians probably agree with me too, but there is probably a proportion of (vocal) people out there who a strong proponents of capital punishment – even before trial.

This Friday, 3 February 2017, marks 50 years since Australia last executed a prisoner.  Ronald Joseph Ryan was hanged at 8:00 am on 3 February 1967 in Division D of Pentridge Prison, Victoria, after being convicted of murdering prison warder George Hodson during an escape attempt in 1965 and after appeals to the High Court and Privy Council failed.

Huge numbers of protesters took to the streets in response to Ryan’s execution – apparently some of the largest protests in Australian history.  Even in the late 60s a lot of Australians were opposed to the death penalty.

As is often the case the law was slow to catch up with the prevailing views of society but eventually, in 1973 the Federal Government abolished the death penalty for Commonwealth offences and NSW was the final state to abolish it in 1985.

50 years since Ryan’s execution the figures of capital punishment globally are still surprisingly high, although moving in the right direction.  In 2015, at least 1,634 people were executed in 25 countries around the word.  I say “at least” because apparently the data coming out of China and North Korea is a bit sketchy and is expect to be thousands more – no surprise there.

The top 5 executors are China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA – in that order.

USA’s figures are interesting, with 28 people being executed in 2015 across 6 states, the lowest number in a single year since 1991.  A further 52 people were sentenced to death in 2015, a significant decline from 2014 and the lowest number recorded since executions resumed in 1977.  Whilst this decline is quite encouraging, I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers increase in the next, say, 4-8 years.

Closer to home, Indonesia executed 14 people for drug-related offences in 2015, including the controversial executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two of the ‘Bali Nine’.  The condemnation of the executions of Chan and Sukumaran suggests the majority of Australians still feel as passionate about our opposition to the death penalty as we did in the late 1960s.

Overall the global community appears to be moving away from the death penalty and each year the list of countries who have officially abolished the death penalty continues to grow.  Another 4 countries formally abolished capital punishment in 2015 – Fiji, Madagascar, the Republic of Congo and Suriname, followed by Guinea and Nauru in 2016.  In total 104 countries have formally abolished the death penalty with another 38 or so being abolitionists in practice.

We should be proud Australia ended capital punishment relatively early, compared to other countries, including our close neighbours.  Perhaps, as the international voice against the death penalty gets louder the remaining 58 countries will follow our lead.