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Capital punishment in Australia

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Capital punishment in Australia

Capital punishment has been formally abolished in Australia. It was last used in 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria. Ryan was the last of 114 people executed in the 20th century and prior to his execution Queensland and New South Wales had already abolished the death penalty for murder. Brenda Hodge became the last person sentenced to death in August 1984. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and she was paroled in 1995.[1] It was removed as a punishment for murder in all states by 1984 when the state of Western Australia abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and the next year NSW removed death as a possible punishment for treason, piracy and arson of naval dockyards.

Between Ryan's execution and 1984[1][2][3] occasional death sentences were passed in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, but were commuted to life imprisonment. In 2010 federal legislation prohibited capital punishment in all Australian states and territories.


Map featuring the year of the last execution and the year of abolition

Death sentences were carried out under Aboriginal customary law, either directly or through sorcery. In some cases the condemned could be denied mortuary rites.[4] The first executions carried out under European law in Australia took place in Western Australia in 1629, when Dutch authorities hanged the mutineers of the Batavia.

Capital punishment had been part of the legal system of Australia since British settlement and during the 19th century, crimes that could carry a death sentence included burglary, sheep stealing, forgery, sexual assaults, murder and manslaughter, and there is one reported case of someone being executed for "being illegally at large." During the 19th century, these crimes saw about 80 people hanged each year throughout Australia.

Before and after federation, each state made its own criminal laws and punishments.


In 1973 the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 of the Commonwealth abolished the death penalty for federal offences. It provided in Section 3 that the Act applied to any offence against a law of the Commonwealth, the Territories or under an Imperial Act, and in s. 4 that "[a] person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence".

No executions were carried out under the bridge of the federal government and the passage of the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973 saw the death penalty replaced with life imprisonment as their maximum punishment. Since the Commonwealth effects of utilising this Act no more individuals have been exposed to the death penalty and it is now replaced with life imprisonment.

On 11 March 2010 Federal Parliament passed laws that prevent the death penalty from being reintroduced by any state or territory in Australia, although this is beyond the powers (ultra vires) of the Commonwealth to do so.[5]

Neither the Commonwealth nor any of the states will extradite or deport a prisoner to another jurisdiction if they will face the death penalty. A recent case involving this was the case of American Gabe Watson, who was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife in North Queensland, and faced capital murder charges in his home state of Alabama. His deportation was delayed until the government received assurances that he would not be executed if found guilty.

New South Wales

The last execution in NSW was carried out on 24 August 1939, when John Trevor Kelly was hanged at Sydney's Long Bay Correctional Centre for the murder of Marjorie Constance Sommarlad. Capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1955, and for all crimes in 1984. New South Wales was the last Australian State to formally abolish the death penalty for all crimes.


Old Melbourne Gaol gallows

Victoria’s first executions occurred in 1842 when two natives were hanged outside the site of the Melbourne Gaol for the killing of two whalers in the Westernport district.[6] Ronald Ryan was the last man executed at Pentridge Prison and in Australia. Ryan was hanged on 3 February 1967 after being convicted of the shooting death of a prison officer during a prison escape from Pentridge Prison, Coburg, Victoria in 1965. Ryan was the last of 186 executions.[7]

Victoria was also the state of the last woman executed in Australia. Jean Lee was hanged in 1951. She was accused of being an accomplice in the murder of 73 year old William ('Pop') Kent. She, along with her accomplices were executed on 19 February 1951. Victoria would not carry out another execution until 16 years later when it became the last state to carry out an execution in 1967 with Ronald Ryan.[8]

Not all those executed were murderers. Albert McNamara was hanged for Arson in 1902 and David Bennett, hanged in 1932, was convicted of raping a four year old girl.[9] The number includes the triple murderer Edward Leonski, executed by the U.S. Army in 1942.[10]

The beam used to execute the condemned prisoner was removed from Old Melbourne Gaol and installed in D Division at Pentridge Prison by the condemned child rapist David Bennett. It was used for all 10 Pentridge hangings. After Victoria abolished capital punishment in 1975 the beam was removed and put into storage. It was reinstalled at the Old Melbourne Gaol in August 2000.[11]


Queensland was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1922. This came nearly a decade after Ernest Austin was hanged for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.

Only one woman was hanged, Ellen Thompson. She was convicted of murdering her husband with the help of her lover.

Western Australia

In Western Australia, between 1829 and 1855, hangings were performed at a variety of places, even the site of the offence, and this only changed in 1856 with the construction of the Perth Gaol, which became the main execution site in the state. John Gavin was the first European settler to be legally executed in Western Australia. He was executed for murder in 1844 at the age of fifteen. The last change in site was in 1888, when what had been the Imperial Convict Establishment at Fremantle was first used for hangings. It had been renamed the Fremantle Prison in 1886 and handed over to the colonial government to be a major high security prison; 43 men (and 1 woman, Martha Rendell) were to be hanged there.

Hangings would take place at 8 a.m. on Monday mornings. The condemned would be woken at 5:30 a.m., showered, transferred to the condemned cell, given the services of a spiritual adviser, and offered a glass of whiskey. On leaving the condemned cell they would be taken to the gallows; usually only 60 seconds elapsed before the trap was pulled.

The last execution was that of Eric Edgar Cooke on 26 October 1964 at Fremantle Prison. Cooke had been convicted on one count of murder, but evidence and his confessions suggested he had committed many more. The last sentence of death in Western Australia (indeed anywhere in Australia) was passed in 1984,[1][2][3] but the female killer (Brenda Hodge)[12] in question had her sentence commuted to imprisonment for life, as was customary by this stage.

Capital punishment was formally removed from the statutes of the state with the passage of the Acts Amendment (Abolition of Capital Punishment) Act 1984.

South Australia

The Adelaide Gaol was the site of fifty hangings from Pitti Miltinda on 7 June 1861 to Glen Sabre Valance, murderer and rapist, on 24 November 1964 and three executions also occurred at Mount Gambier Gaol.

Two Maria a few months before.[13]

Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman ever to have been executed under South Australian law, was hanged on 30 December 1873. Her body was not released to the family and was buried between the inner and outer walls of the prison, identified by a number and the date of the execution.

In 1976, the Criminal Law Consolidation Act was modified so that the death sentence was changed to life imprisonment.


In the early days of colonial rule Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen's Land, was the site of penal transports. Mary McLauchlan was convicted in 1830 for infanticide; she was sentenced to both death and dissection.[14][15] She was the first woman to be hanged in Tasmania.

The last execution was in 1946, that of serial murderer and rapist Frederick Thompson. The death penalty was abolished in 1968.[16]

Australian Capital Territory

No executions were carried out in the Australian Capital Territory, where federal legislation abolished capital punishment in 1973.

Northern Territory

Aborigines who lived in the Northern Territory came under the European law of Australia even though they did not have any contact with the government.

There were several outcries over Aborigines receiving mandatory death sentences for murder, leading to the passage of the Crimes Ordinance 1934 which allowed for discretionary sentences when both the accused and the victim were Aboriginal.

The last execution was a double hanging in 1952, and the death penalty was abolished 1973.

Public opinion

Australia banned capital punishment on a state-by-state basis through the 20th century, although today the practice is still supported by a large minority.[17] However, there have been recent cases where Australians contradicted this, such as the case of the Bali bombers, in which then prime minister, John Howard, stated Australians expected their execution by Indonesia.[18]

On occasion the issue of capital punishment is published in the media or is subject to media and public support and scrutiny. Most occasions where capital punishment is brought up in the media, it is regarding current cases of intense media coverage regarding murder, rape and in extreme circumstances such as terrorism. On various occasions, the media and public express support for capital punishment for the most heinous of crimes committed against humanity including mass murder such as in the cases of the Milat Backpacker Murders and the Bryant Port Arthur massacre, in which a combined 42 people were killed stirring strong emotions as to whether or not to reintroduce the death penalty. However, no person of significant stature or influence has advocated the death penalty for quite some time since the last execution in 1967.

The death penalty was completely abolished and outlawed in Australia with the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Bill 2009 passing the Australian Senate without amendments in March 2010.[19] There are no plans to restore capital punishment in Australia.

The table below reflects the results of a public opinion survey conducted by the Roy Morgan institute where responders were given the following question: "In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?" The surveyors conducted the poll for people from 14 and onwards in age with around 687 people completing the survey for publication in December 2009.[20] The results of the poll are as follows:

Date Death Penalty
December 1947 67 24 9
February 1953 68 24 8
April 1962 53 37 10
November 1975 40 43 17
October 1980 43 40 17
January 1986 43 41 16
July 1986 44 40 16
July 1987 49 37 14
February 1989 52 34 14
February 1990 53 35 12
June 1990 51 35 14
May 1992 46 39 15
May. 1993 54 36 10
August 1995 53 36 11
November 2005 27 66 7
December 2005 25 69 6
August 2009 23 64 13
  • Source: Roy Morgan Research


  1. ^ a b c Sentenced at Birth. (2005-08-05). Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  2. ^ a b Australian Online Bookshop – Books for Australians, Australian Books for the World. Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  3. ^ a b [3]
  4. ^ Traditional Aboriginal Law and Punishment – Part V – Aboriginal Customary Law and the Criminal Justice System, Law Reform Commission of Western Australia – Aboriginal Customary Laws Discussion Paper
  5. ^ "Death penalty dead and buried". The Age (Melbourne). 11 March 2010. 
  6. ^ "ned kelly australian bushranger timeline page 2". 17 February 2009. Retrieved 18 August 2010. 
  7. ^ The Hanging of Ronald Ryan:40 Years Later. (2009-08-27). Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  8. ^ Biography – Jean Lee – Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  9. ^ Prisoner Hanged. (1932-09-27). Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  10. ^ Leonski guilty, sentenced to Death
  11. ^ Executions in the State of Victoria ned kelly.
  12. ^ Walk On – Last Person Sentenced to Death – Brenda Hodge.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Public Executions. Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  15. ^ Trevor McClaughlin (1998). Irish Women in Colonial Australia. Allen & Unwin.  
  16. ^ Helen MacDonald (2005). Human remains: Dissection and Its Histories. Yale University Press.  
  17. ^ [4] – Australia's Position on the Death Penalty, Michael Walton, March 2003 This is a modified version of an article first published in the Human Rights Defender., New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties
  18. ^ Australians expect Bali bomber executions, says PM By Sarah Smiles Canberra and Mark Forbes, 13 October 2007, Brisbane Times.
  19. ^ Death penalty dead and buried as Parliament bans it for good. Herald Sun (2010-03-12).
  20. ^ [Roy Morgan Research] Morgan Poll. (2009-08-27). Retrieved on 2012-09-10.
  • ^ Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973
  • Capital Punishment from the Fremantle Prison site
  • Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 3: Capital punishment from the Australian Institute of Criminology
  • Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda – Appeal for Justice
  • "Capital Punishment" speech by The Ian Callinan, Justice of the High Court of Australia
  • The History of Correctional Services in South Australia

External links

  • List of Executions in the State of Victoria
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